TIME

China: Dozens Dead or Injured in Xinjiang ‘Terror,’ but Facts Are Few and Far Between

A Uighur man looks on as a truck carrying paramilitary policemen travel along a street during an anti-terrorism oath-taking rally in Urumqi
A Uighur man looks on as a truck carrying paramilitary policemen travel along a street during an antiterrorism oath-taking rally in Urumqi, China's Xinjiang region, on May 23, 2014 Stringer China—Reuters

Two vastly different accounts have emerged about the incident, which occurred on the first day of the ‘Id al-Fitr festival

Some time on Monday, in a small town near China’s northwest frontier, dozens of people were injured or lost their lives. Two days later, we do not know who died, how they were killed or what sparked the violence. And with the area effectively sealed off by Chinese security forces, and the Internet up and down across the area, it is possible we never really will.

Two vastly different accounts have emerged about the incident, which occurred on the first day of the ‘Id al-Fitr festival, which celebrates the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. Chinese state media reported that dozens of civilians were killed or injured in a premeditated terrorist attack in Shache county (or Yarkand in the Uighur language). The news, which was not released until more than 24 hours after the incident, was cast as evidence of organized terrorism by ethnic Uighur extremists. Their account suggests that knife-wielding mobs went on a rampage after officials discovered some explosives and foiled a terrorist plot that may or may not have been timed to coincide with a commodity fair.

An account by the nonprofit Radio Free Asia (RFA) paints an altogether different picture. Reporters for the outlet’s Uighur-language news service say dozens of “knife- and ax-wielding” ethnic Uighurs were shot by police in a riot sparked by restrictions during Ramadan. “There has been a lot of pent-up frustration over house-to-house searches and checking on headscarves [worn by Uighur women] during this Ramadan,” Alim Adurshit, a local official, told RFA. The report also mentioned the extrajudicial killing of a Uighur family — an incident that has not been reported by Chinese state press and that TIME has not independently confirmed.

The dueling narratives point to the challenge of figuring out what, exactly, is happening in China’s vast and restless northwest. The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, where the incident took place, is contested space. It is both claimed as the homeland of the mostly Muslim, Turkic Uighur people, and also as Chinese territory. In recent years, the area has seethed with unrest attributed, depending on whom you ask, to Islamic terrorism, separatism or heavy-handed repression by the state. For years now, a small minority has fought against the government, usually by targeting symbols of state power, including police stations and transport hubs.

The past year has been particularly bloody. In October, an SUV plowed through crowds of tourists in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing five — including three inside the vehicle — and injuring dozens. Chinese authorities said the vehicle was driven by ethnic Uighurs, but revealed little else. In March, a group of knife-wielding attackers slashed and stabbed their way through a train station in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, killing 29. The government blamed that incident, and two subsequent attacks in the regional capital, Urumqi, on separatists from Xinjiang.

Beijing has responded by doubling down on already aggressive security measures and their campaign of forced cultural integration. Across the region, town squares are now patrolled by armed security personnel in riot gear, and villages are sealed off by police checkpoints. Ethnic Uighurs are stopped and searched. Meanwhile, the government has stepped up limits on religious practice by, for instance, putting age restrictions on mosque visits and banning students and government workers from fasting during Ramadan.

In the context of this division and distrust, it makes sense that there are competing claims. The trouble is, China prevents outsiders from gathering information on their own. The foreign press corps is, by virtue of China’s rules, based far from Xinjiang, primarily in the Han-majority cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Travel to Xinjiang, while not officially forbidden, is effectively restricted. When I visited Urumqi and Hotan in late May, security personnel harassed my Chinese colleague, questioned me, followed our movements and stopped us from traveling to the city of Kashgar.

The ruling Communist Party’s powers of information control are also a factor. On a good day, China’s Great Firewall makes it difficult for citizens to share information that censors might consider politically sensitive; other days, it is impossible. Following the violent suppression of the 2009 riots in Urumqi, the government effectively turned off the region’s Internet for nine months. There are reports the web is off and on again now, which may help explain why so little has emerged in terms of firsthand accounts or photographic evidence.

Overseas-based Uighur groups say until there is transparency, the public should not trust the state’s account. “China does not want the world to know what occurred on Monday,” said Alim Seytoff, president of the Uyghur American Association, in a statement. “As little is known of the circumstances of their killing, due to tight restrictions on information, UAA seeks an open investigation into the incident and the loss of dozens of lives.”

With every instance of violence, that looks less likely to happen.

TIME Pictures of the Week

Pictures of the Week: July 18 – July 25

From rising death toll on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the return of MH17 victims to the Netherlands, to wildfires in Washington and the fight to protect flamingos, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

 

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 global health

Photos: How Muslim Families Around the World Break the Ramadan Fast

From Istanbul to Sydney to Beijing, here's what Muslim families are eating to break the fast

TIME Malaysia

Malaysians Want the Bodies of Their MH17 Dead Back Before the Ramadan Fast Ends

Zulrusdi bin Haji Mohamad Hol dressed for iftar dinner with other relatives of MH17 victims at Marriott Hotel in Putrajaya, Malaysia, on July 20, 2014. Zulrusdi's cousin was returning after a three-year work stint in Kazakhstan with his wife and four children on July 17, when the Malaysia Airlines plane they were traveling with was shot down midair over eastern Ukraine. Per Liljas

For relatives gathered at a hotel south of Kuala Lumpur, it's a heart-breaking waiting game

Update: This story was updated at 22:45 ET on July 22 to include an official quote on the correct handling of dead bodies in Islam.

Dusk settles and Malaysia comes together to break the daily fasting of Ramadan. Hundreds of people in elegant attire mill about the lavish iftar buffet at Marriott Hotel in Putrajaya, 25 km south of Kuala Lumpur. Two floors down, however, the mood is less festive. There, MH17 relatives gather around tables in one of the conference rooms and yearn for a completely different religious observance.

“We need to get the bodies home to expedite the burials,” says Zulrusdi bin Haji Mohamad Hol, whose cousin was on the plane together with his whole family. “Otherwise, how will our family members get peace?”

Four days after Malaysia Airlines flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down over eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian rebels who control the area have piled almost 200 corpses into refrigerated boxcars and used cranes to move chunks of the downed aircraft. International investigators still have limited access to the crash site, and Western governments have condemned the separatists for tampering with the scene.

A rebel leader said Sunday that they will hand over the bodies to the International Civil Aviation Organization, yet that depends on an as yet nonexistent cooperation between rebels, the Ukraine government and international investigators. A government-appointed counselor at the Marriott says he has to shield relatives from media coverage from Ukraine. Zulrusdi has caught images of remains putrefying on the fields, and rebels carrying away bodies in plastic bags. International media has carried reports of victims’ luggage and personal belongings being rummaged through and possibly looted.

“I’m very angry,” Zulrusdi says. “They’re inhumane, they don’t understand. First they murder our relatives then they keep the corpses with them.”

Pressure is mounting on Russia to take a firmer role in securing the investigation and recovery of bodies. The U.S. has been particularly harsh in their allusions to Russian culpability. On Sunday, the embassy in Kiev stated that “MH17 was likely downed by a SA-11 surface-to-air missile from separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine,” that Russia had sent “a convoy of military equipment” to the separatists over the weekend of July 12-13, and that Moscow had trained the rebels in the use of air defense systems.

However, officials in Malaysia have chosen a more cautious tone.

“Culpability is only the third priority of the Malaysian government,” says Bridget Welsh, senior research associate at the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies of the National Taiwan University. “It would be counterproductive for their goal of bringing back the bodies to take a harder position on Russia now.”

James Chin, professor of political science at Monash University, says that Prime Minister Najib Razak has put himself in a bind by promising to recover the bodies from MH17 before next week, when the fasting period of Ramadan ends.

“It will be almost impossible to do this, and it will show how powerless Malaysia is in a situation like this, involving big players like the U.S. and Russia,” he says.

A Malaysian team is currently in Ukraine to take care of the Muslim bodies, equipped with kafan, the ritual cloth that remains should be wrapped in.

“The way the bodies were handled by the separatist has not only made us angry but has saddened us,” Othman Mustapah, director general of the Department of Islamic Development, tells TIME. “Islam places great emphasis on respecting the dead body. Not only must burial rites be managed properly, with care and in a civilized manner, the bodies must be washed, wrapped in kafan and buried as soon as possible.”

Dr Mohammad Asri Zainul Abidin, former mufti of Perlis province, adds: “If you cannot find the body, there is a special prayer that can be read. As for the relatives of MH370, it’s been up to them to decide when to do that.”

The next-of-kin at the Marriott Hotel continue to fast, join for iftar in the evening and pray that the remains of their relatives will soon be retrieved. Zulrusdi knows that in this process, his government only has limited power.

“It’s like the Malaysian saying, when the elephants fight, the little animals get trampled underfoot.”

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 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 Pictures of the Week

Pictures of the Week: July 11 – July 18

From the escalating violence in Gaza and the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, to the growing influx of unaccompanied migrant minors entering the US and the rise of the Super Moon, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

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.

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