TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 26: The Simple Lifestyle

Internal happiness cannot be bought--it must be sought.

The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

One of the spiritual and ethical challenges of living in the age of capitalism is avoiding a lifestyle of complete consumerism and materialism. We’re constantly stimulated and tempted with advertising that tells us we have to buy the next big thing if we want to be cool and relevant. Every new product is made to seem like it will change our lives forever and that we’ll simply be better off if we buy it.

If everyone were able to afford the latest and biggest product on the market that would be one thing, but on average U.S. households go into major credit card debt trying to keep up with the whole consumerist culture. The American economy is largely driven by our willingness to buy what we cannot afford by accruing loans.

Interestingly, some of America’s founding fathers and the Prophet Muhammad seemed to be on the same page in their strong warnings against taking on unnecessary debt. For example, Benjamin Franklin famously said, “The second vice is lying, the first is running in debt.” Similarly, the Prophet warned, “When a man gets into debt, he speaks and tells lies, and he makes a promise and breaks it.” In one of the famous prayers of the Prophet he would ask God for protection against debt and against facing the tyranny of other men in the same breath. Along the same concern, Andrew Jackson warned, “When you get in debt you become a slave.” The Qur’an too cautions against taking on usurious loans, in particular, with the longest passage in the scripture dedicated to its prohibition (2:282).

Making decisions on what to buy and how much to buy is not an easy. The key, as with many things, is moderation. The Qur’an describes the righteous servants of God as “those who are neither wasteful nor miserly when they spend, but keep to a just balance” (25:67). The Qur’an condemns those who over indulge in worldliness and, yet, says that monasticism is not something God prescribes (57:27). The problem, though, is that too often the “balance” tilts more toward materialism than simplicity. And, therefore, one of the spiritual and ethical responsibilities of our time is to rediscover an appreciation for living the simple life.

One of the uniting characteristics of spiritual teachers across faith traditions has been their adherence to and preaching of the simple lifestyle. It is no coincidence. To live a simple life is to live a free life. And, to live a free life is to live a life that is more concerned about the spiritual than the material. As the Qur’an puts it, “Wealth and children are the attractions of this worldly life, but lasting good works have a better reward with your Lord and give better grounds for hope” (18:46).

In the Islamic spiritual tradition, the sages teach that what breaks our addiction to materialism is a healthy dose of remembering death. This is not meant to be a morbid contemplation, but more so a reality check on how short the life of this world is and how it pales in comparison to the everlasting life that the soul journeys on after death. Therefore, working day and night to accumulate all these goods only to enjoy just for a little while if at all makes little sense. Joy and satisfaction, instead, come from an internal happiness that no amount of materialism can satisfy. And, this internal happiness cannot be bought, it must be sought.

All of Islam’s five pillars of practice direct believers toward considering a simple life. The testimony of faith that there is no god but God is a denial of the world as a god. The five daily prayers are meant to take a time out from worldliness. Almsgiving is a practice in freely giving from your possessions and in learning the art of non-attachment. Fasting is all about self-discipline and freedom from the material. And, pilgrimage is an act of, literally, stripping oneself of worldliness and embracing the life of simplicity.

In these last remaining days of Ramadan, let us reconsider how we earn and spend our wealth and how much we invest in the material as opposed to the spiritual. The key is, indeed and truly, finding the right balance.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 25: Restraining the Tongue

Speech is powerful--here are five ways to be disciplined about what you say.

The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

A wise Arab proverb says, “Every war begins with words.”

This proverb holds true not just between nations, but even between family members and friends. How many a war have we engaged in which the tongue was our sharpest and most brutal weapon?

In the teachings of Islamic spirituality there is much that is written about the importance of restraining the tongue. The tongue is called “the mirror of the heart.” In other words, what appears on our tongue is a chief indicator of what is in our hearts. And, this becomes even truer in those unguarded moments when anger, frustration, or stress gets the best of us and our tongues lose any sense of discipline.

This is, perhaps, why the Prophet Muhammad said that one of the ways of knowing if there is hypocrisy in our hearts is to examine what we say with our tongues when we become angry. If it is foul and vile words, then that is a measure of how much purification of the heart remains.

The masters of Islamic spirituality teach that the heart and the tongue have a two-way relationship. Even though the tongue is the mirror whereas the heart is the reality, if we work on polishing the mirror the reality also becomes polished with time and effort.

So, what does it mean to work on the tongue? It means struggling within ourselves to restrain the tongue from all that is corrupt and ugly, like one would pull back a wild horse, and to train the tongue in the speech of goodness and beauty.

The sages and scholars of Islamic spirituality warn that the tongue should be guarded from the following 8 types of speech: lying; breaking promises or oaths; speaking ill of others or slandering; wrangling, arguing and disputing with others without any clear benefit or when you fear it will get out of hand; self-justification or self-praise in a way that leads to arrogance; cursing or using foul language; invoking evil on creatures even if they are your worst enemies; jesting, ridiculing, and scoffing at people in a way that hurts people’s feelings or gives them a bad reputation – this is even worse when this type of speech is directed toward an entire community of people.

Each one of these has their specific descriptions and treatments, but in summary there are five steps that we can take to become more aware of our speech and to polish our tongues, according to the spiritual teachers:

1) Knowledge: Just be aware of the 8 types of speech that you should avoid. Knowledge leads to introspection and introspection leads to reform. When you notice any of these ailments on your tongue, take yourself to task and work to change you condition.

2) Silence: The Prophet Muhammad said that “anyone who believes in God and the Last Day should either speak well or remain silent.” Silence is golden, so goes the saying. Thinking before you speak is the key. One of the great sages of Islam and Caliph after the Prophet Muhammad would place a small stone underneath his tongue and move it to speak only after considering whether what he had to say was truly beneficial. This might be too difficult of a practice for many of us, but it goes to show how seriously silence was taken among the spiritual elite.

3) Fasting: Increase your days of fasting, for fasting by its nature teaches restraint.

4) Change your surrounding: Keeping good company and keeping yourself busy with good things so that your tongue finds very little opportunity to engage in baseless conversations.

5) Remembering the Divine: Cloaking your tongue with the beautiful names of God and the praise of those names will make your tongue to incline toward that which is beautiful and wholesome. Eventually, ugly speech will be completely antithetical and unnatural to a tongue that is used to beauty.

The remaining days of Ramadan are perfect days to intensify our practice of cultivating a disciplined tongue. These are not only the days of peak restraint but also of increasingly remembering God, seeking forgiveness and longing for salvation.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 24: The Social Qur’an

Faith is incomplete without a radical commitment to social justice.

The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

In the late 19th to early 20th century there emerged an influential intellectual Christian movement that preached, what became known as, the “Social Gospel.” In summary, the movement sought to apply Christian ethics, taken from the Gospel, to social problems such as poverty and war. It was and remains a progressive movement essentially rooted in the Gospel’s radical social justice message.

Interestingly, around the same period, there also emerged movements within Islam that sought to do something very similar – apply Islamic ethics, taken from the Qur’an, to the myriad of social problems Muslim societies were facing. This movement attempted to advocate and argue for human freedom from tyrannical governments, economic fairness, and so on. Unfortunately, when some of these movements went from standing up against unjust political authority to wanting to become the political authority itself, the movements were quickly and brutally suppressed and fractured – sometimes leading to the formation of radical political organizations that responded to the suppression with calls to militancy.

Today, this much maligned and far too easily discredited movement is known in the West as “Islamism” and their followers are called “Islamists.” It has become a bad word from the halls of government to the world of academia. If you want to malign or discredit a Muslim public intellectual or activist, all you have to do is call them an Islamist. Sadly, many radical proponents of the Christian Social Gospel message have met a similar end.

In the Muslim World the movement is received with much more nuance. There are, of course, the violent extremists who have the loudest bullhorn on the block because of their tactics – “what bleeds leads” as they say in journalism. Every major study has shown that these violent groups are largely rejected by the vast majority of Muslims. But, some of the most effective grassroots movements in the Muslim World today are informed and inspired, at least to some degree, by the social justice message of the Qur’an as articulated by the likes of Hassan al-Banna (d.1949) in Egypt and Abul Ala Mawdudi (d.1979) in Pakistan. The attraction is not so much in the wholesale revolutionary message, necessarily, but simply in the positive concern for addressing social injustices with something that sounds and feels authentic to the Muslim imagination – as opposed to something that sounds and feels like a Western colonialist import or plot.

While there was something certainly brewing in the waters in the late 19th – early 20th century in terms of socio-political movements rooted in the Qur’anic social justice message, these movements were largely revivalist movements that were inspired by much earlier periods in Muslim history including many Sufi Orders that were committed to serving the most marginalized in society and affecting grassroots change. Indeed, it would be hard not to read the Prophet Muhammad’s biography and the story of his mission as a radical movement for social justice. The intellectuals behind the Social Gospel would see the life and mission of Jesus in a similar way.

So, in brief, what is the Social Qur’an – if we can borrow terminology from the Social Gospel movement? It is a message that calls on believers to stand up for justice and bear witness to the truth “even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or your close relatives” (4:135) and warns believers to never allow “hatred of others to lead you away from justice” (5:8). It is a teaching that commands believers throughout the Qur’an to “be a community that calls for what is good, urges what is right, and forbids what is wrong” (3:104). It is an urging to follow a higher ethical plane that “Is to free the slave, to feed at a time of hunger an orphaned relative or a poor person in distress, and to be one of those believe and urge one another to steadfastness [in doing good] and compassion” (90:13—17). It is prescribing as a pillar of Islam the institutionalization of almsgiving for the poor and needy (9:60) and an ethic of charity that affirms and restores the dignity of socially neglected people (2:261—274). It is encouraging the “fair and kind” treatment of women (4:19—21). And, it is pushing people to defend the oppressed even if it means putting their own lives at risk (4:74—76). This is just a brief glimpse into the social justice message of the Qur’an.

The Social Qur’an is also a message that prohibits usurious loans that enslave people and entire communities to a lifetime of debt (2:275—281). It strongly condemns people “who give short measure” in their business dealings (83:1—6); exploit the orphans (4:10); “act like tyrants” (26:130); set out to “spread corruption” in the world (2:203), to give just a few examples. Social crimes such as sex slavery (24:33), female infanticide (81:8—9), and so on are spoken against in the strongest language.

So, this is a brief summary of what the Social Qur’an looks like. It is a message and teaching for the socially conscientious people to root their social justice work in a God-centric and spiritually focused way. And, it is a lesson to those who strive to be mindful of God that faith is incomplete without a radical commitment to social justice.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 23: Togetherness

Boarding House Cares For The Elderly During Ramadam Period
Elderly men talk to each other as they take a break at a boarding school that cares for the elderly during Ramadan in Central Java, Indonesia on July 15, 2014. Ulet Ifansasti—Getty Images

Unity does not mean uniformity

The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

In Muslim societies just about everywhere there is a lot of call and cry for unity these days in every sector of society – from the street vendors in the marketplace to the religious preachers on the pulpit. This phenomenon is quite understandable as many Muslims are experiencing crises after crises of political instability, wars, and other forms of strife. Even Muslims who are living in relatively stable and safe contexts experience these crises second hand through news outlets, social media, and reports from family and friends. The proposed solution out of this messy cycle always seems to be unity – only if Muslims would work together and not against each other we would solve all our problems, so goes the argument.

But, too often the problem with these calls for unity is that they – consciously or subconsciously – come with the expectation of uniformity. When religious folks are asked how unity can be gained in their estimation, the most likely answer will be, “by following the Qur’an and Sunnah [prophetic traditions].” Well, that sounds great until you address the million-dollar question – whose understanding and interpretation of Qur’an and Sunnah?

You see, from the very early period of Islamic history, Muslims figured out the hard way that people by their nature tend to disagree and these disagreements can even lead to violence between the most well-intentioned people. So, as Islamic thought and civilization matured there was a calming embrace of pluralism among Muslims so that just in Sunni Islam, for example, there came to be the formation of and tolerance for at least four schools of practice and at least two schools of theology and several schools of spiritual attainment. These schools learned to live side-by-side with tension, yes, but also mutual respect. An entire scholarly discourse was created on the ethics of disagreement to help keep the peace. The more successful Muslim empires figured out institutionalized systems to allow different schools to coexist in society.

But, with the collapse of Islam’s last empire after World War I much of the Muslim World descended into a state of chaos and internal tensions began exploding out of control. The longing since then of many Muslims has been a return to a romanticized past when Muslims were largely united under one or more empires. The popular memory of this period was that Muslims were the leaders of the world when they were united in this way, and now they are a humiliated and easily trampled upon people. This sentiment for reunification and bringing back the glory days is what has, partly, given rise to rather silly but dangerous groups that insist on a single understanding of Islam.

Muslims need to seriously reevaluate and reconsider the whole notion of what unity means and entails for our age. If it means uniformity then we will continue down a long and difficult road. But, if we can re-envision a unity for our times that does not insist on absolute uniformity and conformity then there may be reason for hope.

Ramadan is a marvelous season for us to imagine what this different type of unity might look like. In this month Muslims of different persuasions find a way, more often than in any other month, to break bread together, pray together, laugh and cry together. The act of sitting together over a meal or praying shoulder-to-shoulder or exchanging stories in an intimate setting is what breaks the cycle of mistrust and misunderstandings.

As the Muslim chaplain at Princeton University, I have witnessed this firsthand. Our breaking of the fast table every evening looks like a gathering of the United Nations. South and Central Asians, Africans, Europeans, and Americans enjoy each other’s company with some meeting each other for the very first time. Sunnis and Shias and Sufis pray together before sharing a meal. The insistence is not on uniformity, it is on friendship.

As such, I would like to suggest that we as a community move from a desire for unity to a desire for togetherness – a state of being close to one another as opposed to a state of being necessarily joined together as a whole under a single school of thought or organization. The togetherness model requires a strong civil society that is bottom up rather than an enforced uniformity that is top down.

As the Qur’an beautifully says, “O humankind, We created you from a male and a female, and We made you races and tribes for you to get to know each other…” (49:13). Getting to “know each other” is what is at the heart of the togetherness ethos. Muslim commentators and sages have explained that this means, at its deepest and most desired level, an intimate friendship and love between people who are different. When our sense of relationship is based on friendship and closeness in the togetherness paradigm, then fear mongering and hatred and discord – all of which we have come to hate – can and will be overcome.

So, here’s hoping and praying that just as this month of Ramadan has brought so many together, that we can find a way to embrace togetherness as our ethos for moving forward.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 22: A Prayer for Palestine

Israel launches ground operation in Gaza
Palestinians inspect damage of an apartment building after it was hit by an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City, Friday, July 18, 2014. Momen Faiz—NurPhoto/Corbis

May God forgive us for our evils here on earth

The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

Throughout the last several days, my heart and mind have been overwhelmed thinking about the innocent lives lost and in harms way as Israel intensifies its military campaign in the Gaza Strip. I’m not a politician or a historian – I am just a simple human being who is aching, like millions of others, from all of the reports of death and mayhem that are emerging out of Palestine.

The tragic stories really hit home when journalists broke the story of four first-cousin children who were playing soccer near the beach when an Israeli missile dropped, killing the four children instantaneously. The photographs of the dead children and their frantic parents just broke my heart. I thought of all the children in my own life beginning with my nephew, and how terrible it must feel to lose them, especially in such a way. As of Friday, July 18, forty-five children have lost their lives in just this latest military campaign. I say not “Palestinian children” for children do not belong to anyone people; they are our collective hope for the future and God-given responsibility to protect. Forty-five precious and beautiful souls gone forever – may they rest in peace.

Israel will point the finger at Hamas arguing that they hide out in civilian areas and that the Israeli army has no other option but to accept mass casualties as part of “collateral damage.” Anyone who has seen a map of Gaza will wonder how innocent civilians and militants would live in clearly demarcated spaces in such a tiny land. Palestinians will argue that the Israeli army is targeting innocents and their operation amounts to nothing other than collective punishment.

What’s lost in the crossfire of words is the reality of suffering on the ground – the sheer pain of lives lost, limbs cut, hope fading, and anger building. It is a suffering that goes beyond the most recent military campaign, and is the day-to-day life under occupation.

In praying for Palestine and reflecting on their plight, I do not wish to undermine the suffering of Israelis who have also lost and also suffered and also experienced much pain over the last 64 years including the abduction and murder of three Israeli youth a few weeks ago.

My intention is just to consider and internalize for a moment – beginning with myself – the tragedy taking place before us. I would like to think that we can take a step back, take a deep breath, rediscover the well of tears that have run dry out of apathy, and lift our hands in prayer for those whose lives were cut too short by war.

“May innocent children, women, and men who are victims of our collective evil rest in peace as they return to the One who is all-loving, most kind. May they experience an eternal life of bliss where they will never again have to hear another explosion or experience another painful wound. May their loved ones who are left behind find the inner peace and fortitude to live on. May God forgive us for our evils here on earth and for our lack of compassion, courage, and wisdom in these times. May God grant us strength and patience and show us the enlightened way of forgiveness, reconciliation, and peaceful coexistence. Amen.”

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 21: Prayer, Beyond Ritual  

Indonesian Muslims Celebrate The Fasting Month Of Ramadan
Muslims pray before breaking of the fast during Ramadan on July 13, 2014 in Surabaya, Indonesia. Robertus Pudyanto—Getty Images

The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

There is probably no time when Muslims pray as much as they do during the blessed month of Ramadan. This is saying a lot for folks who pray five times a day as part of their daily schedule. Every night, throughout Muslims lands and wherever Muslims live, the Mosques are filled with devout and able worshipers who spend at least a portion of their usual sleeping hours to turn to God, attempting to reap all the blessings they can from the holy month. As the month comes to a close, this worship becomes more intense.

Prayer in the Islamic tradition is a prescribed ritual with set times and motions. The life of prayer is given such importance that when the Prophet Muhammad was on his deathbed, one of the last pieces of advice for his community was, “Prayer, prayer, prayer.” The Prophet also described prayer as “the key to paradise.” One of the most common prescriptions for believers in the Qur’an is to institute and be constant in prayer.

Yet, the challenge with prayer is that it can easily become routine and unfocused when it is taken as mere ritual without proper contemplation. In reality, every step of the Muslim prayer – from preparing to pray to concluding the prayer – is full of rich meanings that bring the ritual to life.

A Muslim prepares for his or her prayer with a pre-ritual washing that is meant as much for approaching God in a physically clean state as it is a means for spiritual purification. The washing involves washing the hands, rinsing the mouth, sniffing water up the nose canal, washing the face, washing the arms up to the elbows, wiping the head and neck and ears with wet hands and, finally, washing the feet up to the ankles. Sounds complicated, but it’s easy to get the hang of it after a while. With every limb that is washed, there is spiritual purification and rejuvenation, with water acting as that very real and symbolic purifying agent for dirt and wrongdoings. The washing points to the importance of purifying one’s heart in the journey to God.

After the wash, a Muslim finds a quiet and clean space to pray and faces toward Mecca. Contrary to popular belief, Mecca is the direction of Muslim prayer, not because it is the birth place of the Prophet Muhammad, but rather because it connects worshippers to the ancient footsteps and path of Prophet Abraham – known as the spiritual forefather of the faithful – and his devout family. It is Abraham and his family’s monotheism, trust in God and willingness to sacrifice that led them to the barren deserted land of Mecca where God would bring forth a water spring from the earth for a desperate mother – Lady Hagar – and her babe – Prophet Ishmael – when they were seemingly abandoned and on the brink of losing all hope. This water spring became the source of life and community and an opportunity to impart monotheistic teachings. Years later, Abraham returns to visit his wife and son, and together they build a temple for the worship of God intended for all people (Qur’an 2:125—129). This turning to the ancient temple, known as the kabba, is an act of uniting people toward a common direction and purpose – celebrating the Oneness of God.

Facing the kabba, the Muslim then lifts his or her hands in an upward motion with palms facing outward. It is, among other things, an inauguration of the prayer and a symbolic act of taking everything of worldliness that is before them between their hands and putting it behind them as they turn their attention solely to God.

This is followed by a period of standing in which the opening chapter of the Qur’an and any other Qur’anic passage is recited – either silently or melodically. Standing is the first meditative posture of the prayer. In this posture the mind is over the heart as the words of the Qur’an are being deeply contemplated. Standing is also a preparation for the day of resurrection in which all will have to stand accountable before God.

After standing, the next meditative posture is bowing – a universal symbol of deep respect and honor – to the One most worthy of awe. In this posture, words of divine glorification are sung within the heart. The bowing is also meant to instill, even outside of prayer, a deep respect for the ever living presence of God in our lives, for “God is with you wherever you may be,” says the Qur’an (57:4). In this position, the heart and mind are aligned in their devotion.

After briefly moving back into the standing position, the devotee falls with a state of loving surrender into a state of prostration whereby their hands, knees, feet, forehead and nose are all laid on the earth. It is an act of complete devotion that is meant to instill a life of devotedness to the only One worthy of such dedication. In this position, the heart is over the mind as all doubts are overwhelmed with an inner peace. The worshiper briefly sits after prostration only to fall right back into prostration a second time – like a lover re-embracing their beloved after separation.

When this cycle of standing, bowing and prostrating has been completed at least twice, the devotee moves to the final part of the prayer – the meditative posture of calmly sitting. In this posture, a heavenly moment is recalled when the Prophet journeyed to the high heavens to visit all of the previous prophets and ultimately a special meeting with God. There the Prophet testified that there is “No god but God,” and God testified that “Muhammad is the servant and messenger of God.” The two testimonies join together to form the devout Muslim’s creed and consciousness. Peace is, then, sent upon all of the righteous servants, upon Muhammad and the followers of Muhammad, and upon Abraham and the followers of Abraham.

Finally, after receiving this peace from the Source of Peace, the Muslim turns his or her head to right and to the left, to the East and to the West, and prays in both directions: “May the peace and blessings of God be upon you.” Thus, the spiritual seeker is directed to spread peace and to be among the peacemakers. The prayer concludes with the worshipper embracing a profoundly ethical mission in the world.

In this way, prayer goes beyond mere ritual – it becomes the source of internal and external transformation, and the necessary component in living the life of a spiritually vibrant and ethically upright human being.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 20: The Night of Glory

PAKISTAN-RELIGION-ISLAM-RAMADAN
Pakistani Muslims offer a special evening prayer "Taraweeh' on the first night of the holy month of Ramadan at the grand Faisal Mosque in Islamabad on July 10, 2013. AAMIR QURESHI—AFP/Getty Images

The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

As we approach the last 10 nights of Ramadan, Muslims wait in high anticipation of what can be translated as The Night of Glory (laylatul qadr). It is a brilliant night that is described in the Qur’an in the following way:

In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy

We sent [the Qur’an] down on the Night of Glory.

What will explain to you what that Night of Glory is?

The Night of Glory is better than a thousand months.

On that night the angels and the Spirit descend again and again with their Lord’s permission on every affair.

Peace it is until the rising of the dawn.

(Chapter 97, Abdul Haleem’s translation)

The Night of Glory is the night in which the Prophet Muhammad began receiving revelation from God through the archangel Gabriel while he was meditating in the Cave of Hira on top of the Mountain of Light near the outskirts of Mecca, according to Muslim belief. It is that night in history when Muhammad went from being a simple man among his people to becoming the messenger of God. Not only did that night transform Muhammad the man into Muhammad the Prophet, but it also marked the beginning of the transformation of many parts of the world – beginning with the Arabian Peninsula and stretching as far as China within less than a century – as the new civilization of faith spread from coast to coast and continent to continent.

The first words that the Prophet received from God on that night, now some 1,448 years ago, are words that continue to inspire and guide more than 1.6 billion people worldwide. Chapter 96 of the Qur’an contains these verses: “Read! In the name of your Lord who created: He created the human being from a clinging form. Read! Your Lord is the Most Bountiful One who taught by the pen, who taught the human being what he did not know” (96:1—5).

Receiving these divine words shook the Prophet to his core as he experienced the unexpected power of the glorious night and the command of an outer force. Afraid and befuddled, the Prophet ran home to the warm embrace of his beloved wife, Khadijah, who covered his trembling body with a blanket and reassured his anxious soul. Khadija suggested visiting her cousin, Waraqa ibn Nawfal, who was a Christian sage and scholar, to interpret the experience. Waraqa listened carefully to the Prophet’s experience and declared: “This was the same one [archangel Gabriel] who keeps the secrets, whom God had sent to Moses. I wish I were young and could live [to see the day] when your people will drive you out.” The Prophet, startled and surprised, asked, “Will they [really] drive me out?” Waraqa nodded affirmatively and said, “Anyone who came with something similar to what you have brought was treated with hostility; and if I should remain alive till the day when you will be driven out then I will support you.”

So, the Night of Glory commemorates the advent of the Prophet, the beginning of the revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad, and the centrality of God and knowledge in Islam. But, as Chapter 97 of the Qur’an indicates, the Night of Glory continues to visit every year with great spiritual gifts. In this night, it is believed, the doors of forgiveness are opened to all who ask, the decree of God is reconsidered and determined for every human soul, and salvation is brought closer for anyone who seeks it. As such, it is a night full of praying, seeking and acting goodly.

One of the great mysteries is that no one knows for certain which night in the blessed nights of Ramadan the Night of Glory falls on. It is anticipated during the last 10 nights. And, some say that it falls on one of the odd nights of the last 10 nights. God knows best – our task is to seek it; God’s grace is to grant it!

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 19: Learning Humility

Indonesian Muslims Celebrate The Fasting Month Of Ramadan
Muslim men read the Quran as they wait for the breaking of the fast during Ramadan on July 13, 2014 in Surabaya, Indonesia. Robertus Pudyanto—Getty Images

The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

I have found that there is nothing like fasting to break the ego’s grand delusion of self-independence. As the hours of breaking fast get closer and the weakness from lack of food and water sets in each day, it is a reminder of how vulnerable we truly are and how delicate our existence really is.

Our dependency on food and water really makes us realize how interdependent and interconnected to each other and to the rest of God’s creation we are for mere survival. Yet all too often, a sense of invulnerability and self-sufficiency causes arrogance to abound from within such that the arrogant one thinks they can do whatever they want without any consequences.

The Qur’an asks, “Does [man] think that no one will have power over him? ‘I have squandered great wealth,’ he says [arrogantly]. Does he think no one has seen him?” (90:4—7)

The Prophet Muhammad, reflecting on the many passages in the Qur’an condemning arrogance and the unrepentant arrogant, said, “the one who possesses even a grain’s weight of arrogance in his heart will not enter paradise.” This is so because arrogance is incompatible with Islam’s salvific testimony of faith: there is no god except God. The arrogant, unchecked, ultimately come to see their own selves as a god or at least partners with God.

Arrogance was, arguably, the first great sin – when Satan refused God’s command to bow down to the human prototype, Adam, because Satan insisted that he was superior to God’s new creation. It is the same sense of superiority that leads to racism, chauvinism, and so on.

The outwardly arrogant person can easily be seen a mile away. But, arrogance appears in much more subtle ways. Muslim sages who mastered the spiritual sciences identified eight sources of arrogance that we should protect our hearts from: feelings of superiority; treating others with contempt; pride of lineage; pride of beauty; pride of wealth; pride of physical strength; pride of abundance; and, lastly, pride of knowledge.

Sometimes arrogance even appears wearing the mask of righteousness. In the words of Shaykh Ibn Ata’illah al-Iskandari, “Sins that yield humility and a broken heart are superior to righteousness that stokes honor and pride.” Self-righteousness is one of the terrible ailments of our time – it is a disease that leads people to judge others harshly, to denounce people they disagree with, and to even justify oppression and killing.

Humility is not accepting a state of humiliation; rather, humility is about entering into a state of illumination – a state where a person realizes how dependent they really are on God and divine blessings in creation; where a person truly understands how little they really know and how much more there is to learn; and, where a person is able to see the good in others such that they never feel superior to anyone else.

As always, the path to humility begins by examining one’s own heart and then striving to purify it from the most subtle and most manifest traces of arrogance. Here are three steps that Muslim sages have recommended to overcome arrogance and to increase in humility:

  1. The Qur’an asks us to consider our humble origins as just a drop of fluid (76:1—2), and to further consider how we were then slowly fashioned and nurtured into full functioning human beings not of our own accord but through a higher power and compassionate caretakers. Reflecting on this will tame the boastful ego.
  2. Then the Qur’an asks us to consider our end. Nothing that we take pride in will follow us into our graves. Our wealth will be distributed by inheritors, our bodies will become dust and bones, and so on. So, if we feel a sense of pride in anything, just remember how it all ends. Furthermore, remember the inevitable standing before God and the accountability that lies ahead. The Qur’an says, “On that day neither your wealth nor your progeny will benefit you, except the one who comes to God with an unblemished heart” (26:89).
  3. To convert your feelings of arrogance over whatever you have to deep gratitude knowing that it comes truly from God and not from yourself. Gratitude also leads to using our gifts in the best and most beautiful ways, as opposed to arrogance which, inescapably, leads to recklessness with what we are given.
TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 18: What Is Faith?

Indonesian Muslims Celebrate The Fasting Month Of Ramadan
A Muslim man reads the Quran as he waits for the breaking of the fast during Ramadan on July 13, 2014 in Surabaya, Indonesia. Robertus Pudyanto—Getty Images

The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

Faith is not only a set of beliefs, but is an experience that transcends intellectual knowledge. The Qur’an speaks of faith as something that God makes “beloved” and “beautiful” in the hearts of people (49:7). Faith is also described as a “light” that “helps you walk” (57:28).

Imam al-Ghazali, the famous 12th Century Muslim scholar and sage, says this about faith:

“Whoever supposes that faith is realized through speculative theology, abstract proofs, or academic divisions is [wrongly guided]. On the contrary, faith is a light that God, the Sublime and Exalted, casts into the hearts of His servants with bounty and grace from His presence. Sometimes faith is evidenced internally and is impossible to express…” (Yusuf, Hamza. The Creed of Imam Al-Tahawi, Zaytuna Institute 2007).

Muslim sages over the centuries have said that faith is a gift from the heavens denied to none who seek it sincerely and patiently, for God is too generous to turn away the spiritual beggar. For this gift of faith to become real, people have to strive to make room for it in their hearts through spiritual labor and purification.

Love is at the heart of this experiential faith. The Qur’an says that believers are overflowing and most passionate in their love for God (2:165). And in a famous tradition the Prophet Muhammad said, “None of you will have faith until I am more beloved to you than your own soul.” Love by its very nature is emotion that transcends explanation.

In the Islamic tradition, faith is also described as a creed – a set of beliefs to believe in. Prophet Muhammad’s teacher, the archangel Gabriel, once came to the Prophet disguised as a spiritual seeker and asked, “What is faith [imaan]?” The Prophet replied, “Faith is to believe in the One God, the angels, the divinely revealed scriptures, the messengers, the last period, and the divine decree both good and bad.” The Qur’an too offers a very similar creed to believe in (2:177, for example).

Each of these beliefs is mentioned throughout the Qur’an in some detail and sometimes with strong rationale proofs.

The Oneness of God is perhaps the major theme of the Qur’an. There isn’t a chapter of the Qur’an that doesn’t mention, in some way, the unity of God. And, there are strong theological refutations against atheism, polytheism and the Christian doctrine of Trinity. The proof for the Oneness of God is in the harmony that exists in the heavens and on earth – all pointing to a single creator and sustainer.

Belief in angels is mentioned as an aspect of belief in the unseen. Angels are made out of light; they are completely obedient to divine commands and constantly praising God; and they are given various functions such as breathing the life-giving soul into the human fetus and so on.

One of the tasks of the archangel Gabriel, in particular, is to deliver divine guidance to prophets and messengers who are chosen by God to deliver a message to their people and to live an exemplary life. Messengers are those who receive revelation in the form of a scripture. Prophets are those who remind and reinforce what the Messengers before them brought. Every messenger is also a prophet; but not every prophet is a messenger. Some of the prophets mentioned are Ishmael, Isaac, Joseph, Job, and John the Baptist. Some of the messengers mentioned in the Qur’an are Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. To believe in what the messengers were given as divine revelation, in their pure and unadulterated versions, is a core aspect of Muslim faith – including the Scrolls of Abraham, the Psalms of David, the Torah given to Moses, the Gospel of Jesus and the Qur’an given to Muhammad. The Qur’an insists on the unity of the prophets and scriptures as constituting one brotherhood and one essential teaching. There are about 25 clearly mentioned prophets in the Qur’an, but the Qur’an says, “some of them we have told you about and others we have not” (40:78). The Prophet Muhammad, naturally, is singled out as the final confirmation and culmination of all previous prophets and their teachings.

“The last period” means to believe in the end of times on Earth – all good things must come to an end, as they say – and to believe in the resurrection of every human being that ever lived, and in the accountability of every human being before God, and in a hereafter of paradise for the righteous and perdition for the iniquitous. The Qur’an offers vivid images of these things to come, some of which are interpreted metaphorically. For those who doubt resurrection, as the pre-Islamic Arabs did, the Qur’an offers the similitude of how God brings dead and barren land back to life with rain.

And, finally, belief in the decree of God is essentially about believing that nothing happens in the universe – good or bad – without the permission and knowledge of God. It is a belief that presupposes an all powerful and all knowing God, and a God that is the creator and master of time and space, and, therefore, necessarily exists outside of that. God allows blessings and goodness to abound out of divine grace, and God allows harm and evil to exist out of a wisdom that is not easily known or understood from our limited lenses. Even though nothing can happen without the permission of God, human beings are held responsible for acquiring their good and wrong deeds and for the consequences thereof. Free will, therefore, is part of God’s decree.

With all of these beliefs the interpretations and nuances between the different schools of thought are many, but this is essentially a summary of the creed of Islam.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 17: Finding God

Kashmiri Muslim Women Pray During The Second Friday Of Ramadan In Srinagar
Kashmiri Muslim women pray during the second Friday prayer of Holy month of Ramadan at Jamia Masjid in downtown on July 11, 2014 in Srinagar, India. Hindustan Times—Hindustan Times via Getty Images

The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

Some years ago when I was going through a difficult time connecting with God and doubting if I was really fit to be a chaplain, I had an experience that reawakened the spiritual senses within me. I was asked to visit an old Muslim woman in the hospital who was recovering from a stroke. I sat near the woman’s bedside offering prayers for the sick and comforting words. I looked into her big gray eyes – eyes that I knew had seen too much misery and suffering in the world having come to the United States as a refugee from Bosnia. She listened carefully and graciously to my words – words I had grown accustomed to repeating when I would visit the sick.

Then, suddenly, in the midst of ramblings, the old woman interrupted with a simple confession: “I was really, really sad.” I gathered myself and slowly asked, “Was it the thought of dying?” She shook her head indicating that wasn’t it. “Were you afraid of leaving your family?” I asked seeing the loving family gathered around her. That wasn’t it either. Taking her hand as tears began to flow from her blessed eyes, she said gasping between words: “I was sad that I would never again be able to prostrate before Allah.” By the time she struggled to let those words out, there wasn’t a dry eye left in the room. And I felt in that moment that something had changed within me.

Prostration (sujud in Arabic) is a special moment within the Muslim ritual prayer that involves every major limb of the body partaking in an act of worship. Sujud is placing one’s palms and knees, nose and forehead on the ground while repeating words of divine glorification. Sujud is a symbolic act of surrendering one’s ego completely to God. The Qur’an tells believers to prostrate themselves before God, just as every living creature in the heavens and on Earth prostrate themselves before their creator (22:18). And the Prophet Muhammad taught his followers that God is closest to the servants when they are in the position of sujud. When physical prostration is not possible, then symbolic prostration with gestures or even with one’s eyelids or less suffices. So, this old woman that I went to counsel instead counseled me, renewed my faith and told me – without ever knowing it – just exactly what I needed to do to reconnect with God: lovingly and adoringly fall into sujud not just in ritual prayer, but as a metaphor for the way to live life itself.

Time and again, I have found that people who have experienced the most painful tragedies in life have some very special wisdom and connection with God to offer. The question of theodicy is asked and debated so often by my students who are trying to grapple with suffering in the world or students immersed in philosophy. But rarely have I been asked this question among the poor and suffering. There’s often a certainty of and trust in God that I have found in these people – a certainty and trust that I have longed for myself.

The Prophet tells us that when we’re brought before God in the coming life, God will complain to us, “O son or daughter of Adam, I was hungry and you did not give me anything to eat. I was thirsty and you did not give me anything to drink. I was sick and you did not visit me.” The human being will reply, “You’re the Lord of the worlds, how can we give you to eat or drink or visit you?” And God will reply, “So-and-so was hungry, had you fed him you would have surely found Me with him. So-and-so was thirsty, had you given him to drink you would have surely found Me with him. So-and-so was sick, had you visited him you would have surely found Me with him.”

The Qur’an describes the righteous as such: “they give food to the poor, the orphan, and the captive, though they love it themselves, saying, ‘We feed you for the sake of God alone, we expect neither reward nor thanks from you” (76:9).

Indeed, in serving, it is we who stand so much more to gain than to offer. Serving people, especially those who are most in need and vulnerable, is not only a responsibility and a noble deed – it is a way of finding and being with God.

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