TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 16: Faith and Good Works

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 Christian theology there is a debate and divide between Catholics and Protestants on whether faith and good works are needed to achieve salvation or if faith alone can get us there.

Interestingly, in the Islamic tradition there is also a very rich conversation about the relationship between faith and good works and salvation. One of the most common phrases in the Qur’an (more than 43 times) to describe the righteous and even the way to salvation is “have faith and do good works.” The two seem quite inseparable. Good works are a natural manifestation of belief, and good works are what support and sustain faith – beyond, of course, the good graces of God.

This natural relationship and supposition between faith and good works is indicated in many of the Prophet Muhammad’s most famous sayings. There is the golden rule, for example, in which the Prophet said: “None of you believe until you love for your brother what you love for yourself.” Another time the Prophet said that one does not truly believe if they go to sleep with a full stomach while their neighbor goes to sleep hungry. Similarly the Prophet said that a person “will not enter paradise” if their neighbors are not safe from their wrongdoings.

How about good works without faith? In the Islamic tradition, our good works have to be attached to the highest intention – which is to serve God. This is because any other motivation is temporary and fleeting and conditional, while God is permanent and unconditional. Doing good works for the sake of God is the protection needed from doing good just to satisfy one’s ego.

From a faith-based perspective, it is in reality God who gives us the motivation and the capacity to do good works – and, therefore, thanks and glory should be properly directed to the source of all good. In the words of Shaykh Ibn ‘Ata’illah al-Iskandari (d.1309), in his Book of Wisdoms, “Let no good works make you joyous because it comes from you, but rather, be joyous over it because it comes from God to you.”

Like Catholics, Muslims would readily admit that our good works – no matter how many or how great or how sincere – are not by themselves enough for salvation. Salvation is something that is granted by the good graces and mercy [rahmah] of God. Traditions abound in Islamic sources about people who lived less than righteous lives but who were ultimately granted salvation because God accepted one of their seemingly simple but sincere good works, such as giving a thirsty dog something to drink or removing a harmful branch from the road.

But, the dynamic duo of faith and good deeds are what put us on the path to receiving this rahmah that God, ultimately, grants to whomsoever God wishes. It is a rahmah that is given out of wisdom and knowledge by the One who truly knows what is hidden deep down in the hearts of people.

Ramadan is an intense period to devote and train the soul in constantly inclining toward doing good works. The Prophet was described as the most generous among people, and in Ramadan his generosity was described like a wind that kept on giving. Ramadan is also known as the month of salvation because good deeds are accepted even more favorably from God than during any other month. All of this should inspire us to complete the remaining days of Ramadan with as much devotion to doing good works as we can. May God accept it abundantly from us!

Sohaib N. Sultan is a chaplain and the first full-time Muslim Life coordinator at Princeton University.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 15: Help the Oppressor

A Kashmiri Muslim man prays inside the shrine of a Sufi saint during the holy month of Ramadan in Srinagar
A Kashmiri Muslim man prays inside the shrine of Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jeelani, a Sufi saint, during the holy month of Ramadan in Srinagar, Kashmir on July 9, 2014. Danish Ismail—Reuters

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 day, while sitting with his companions, the Prophet Muhammad surprised his community by preaching, “Help your brother, whether he is oppressed or the oppressor.” A silent confusion overtook the community as people pondered the Prophet’s words. Then, a man asked what was on everyone’s mind: “O Prophet, we know how to help the oppressed, but how should we help the oppressor?” The Prophet smiled, anticipating the question, and replied, “By stopping the oppressor from oppressing.”

The Qur’an often describes sins and wrongdoings as “oppressing one’s own soul” (7:23). It begs the question, therefore, what the difference is between the oppressor who commits wrongdoing and the oppressed that is wronged if both are, ultimately, being oppressed. I think, the answer may lie in that oppression attempts to strip the oppressed of their rights and dignity; whereas oppressing strips the oppressor of their very own humanity.

Perhaps, if this is true, then the secret to stopping the oppressor from oppressing is to remind them of their true humanity – a humanity that is often veiled through the thick veils of anger, fear, hatred and jealousy. The Qur’an speaks of the natural disposition God instilled in humanity (fitrah) as being good and upright (30:30). But this natural disposition can become easily clouded when it is willfully ignored. Someone needs to tell the oppressor the truth so that it may return an oppressor to his or her natural disposition.

The Prophet Muhammad said, “the greatest sacred struggle (jihad) is to speak the truth in front of a tyrannical ruler.” And when Moses and Aaron are instructed to go challenge Pharaoh’s oppression, God says to them, “Speak to him gently so that he may take heed, or show respect” (Qur’an 20:44).

Oppression comes in many forms. There is obviously the oppression of the tyrant over a people. But, tyrants also exist in homes, school grounds, workplaces and so on. The oppressor, feeling a loss of his or her humanity, is never happy and is, to the contrary, quite miserable despite outward displays. The oppressor is also always living in fear – fear of losing a grip on his or her real and imagined power or a fear that the oppression will come back to bite them. The state of the oppressor is truly worth pitying.

It is worth noting that the Prophet referred even to the oppressor as “your brother.” When we encounter the tyrant, our first instinct is to wash our hands of him or her and to deny that we have anything to do with them. While this instinct is understandable, the reality is that even the worst of human beings are related to us in humanity, if not faith. And, therefore, opposing the tyrant is an act of sincere love, the same sincerity that one would naturally show to their brother. Opposing oppression must never be rooted in hatred, for that would, inevitably, cause the cycles of oppression to continue.

With all the oppression in the world today, it can be hard to figure out where to begin. Perhaps, the answer is to begin with that which we have the most influence over and which ignites a particular spark within us. The Prophet said that when we see wrong happening, we should oppose it with our hands; and, if we are unable, then with our tongues; and, if we are unable, then at least with our hearts.

My heart bleeds right now for what is happening in Palestine, Syria, Burma, Central Africa and so many other places in the world – just as it bleeds for those who are unjustly stuck in the prison industrial complex and gang violence everyday here in America. So I pray, “O, God, give relief to those who are burdened, and grant us the courage to oppose the oppressors and their oppression with love.” Amen.

TIME Religion

4 Reasons Conservatives Are Embracing Prison Reform

Empty prison cell
Empty prison cell Darrin Klimek—Getty Images

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

There are few social issues over which all within the greater Christian Church can agree, or at least historically have been able to find common ground. From gay marriage to gun control, it seems that religious ideology have gone part and parcel along with the respective political parties that tend to represent our social views.

Criminal sentencing certainly has been one of those divisive social issues among Christians, with many progressives calling for more leniency on nonviolent crimes, and conservatives embracing a “zero tolerance” ethos. If raw numbers are any indication, the right has been “winning” this debate for the past several decades, with prison populations in the United States increasing tenfold in the past forty or so years.

Only recently have the number of incarcerated people within our borders begun to decline, and it’s in part due to a shift in the way those who have championed a hard-nosed approach to sentencing are reframing their thinking. In some respects, the reasons are logistical and economic; for others, the change of heart is informed particularly by their understanding of scripture and the mandates of the Gospel.

As I discuss in my upcoming book, “postChristian: What’s Left? Can We Fix It? Do We Care?” The departure from more rigid institutional identities and values, whether because of inspired reflection or economic necessity, actually give us an opportunity to think in fresh ways about what Jesus calls us to do and be in the world. And not surprising, when we listen to that still small voice, we find some holy, common ground.

In the spirit of seeking such common ground, here are four ideas around which Christians – and non-Christians – from both the left and right are coming together.

Reform makes good financial sense.

Studies have shown that drug treatment and monitored work programs consistently cost less than incarceration, while also proving to be more effective at helping those with substance abuse issues remain sober and stay out of prison in the future. This “bang for your buck” sensibility resonates with many fiscal conservatives concerned with prudence when it comes to tax dollars.

Reform reduces government’s role in our lives.

One historical core value of the right is that of limited government. Since the time of Jefferson, stemming the reach of Uncle Sam has been a drumbeat around which most on the right can rally. In the last thirty years, the public dollars funneled into housing prisoners has exploded past $1 trillion annually, while the use of illicit drugs by adults in the United States continues to increase. Suffice it to say that this is one government program that has failed to live up to its promises, and an increasing number of conservatives and libertarians are joining the chorus for reform as a result.

Second Chances are Biblical.

Though some on the right have long embraced the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” attitude, others are finding a basis in scripture for inclining toward mercy, particularly when it comes to nonviolent crimes. Consider the stories of the Prodigal son, Jonah, David or even Adam and Eve who, though they were promised a death sentence for the transgressions they committed, actually benefitted from a reduced sentence.

Thinking on “paying our debt to society” is shifting.

Traditionally, it’s been suggested the way lawbreakers pay their debt is to sit in jail, and perhaps pick up some trash or hammer out a few license plates for pennies a day. But rather than developing skills as contributing citizens, most prisoners, after being imprisoned for a few years, simply become habituated to their new environment. In short: they become good convicts. Without proper job training and work placement programs, many prisoners turn to public services, from public shelters to SSI, food stamps, etc., to make ends meet. So we exchange one kind of public support for another, while adding nothing to the tax base. And since a federal law in the nineties was passed barring drug offenders from receiving food stamps or cash assistance, many former inmates turn back to criminal activities such as theft or prostitution, thus starting the cycle of recidivism in motion.

Warehousing nonviolent offenders is still big business in the United States, which means that people with significant influence are intent on keeping things more or less as they already are. And certainly not all on the political and religious right agree with the points above. But enough conservatives are breaking rank to begin to form coalitions with the center and left, so that real reform becomes an increasing possibility.

Meanwhile we’re tied with only one other country for having the most prisoners per capita of any nation in the world: nearly as many per capita as Iran and Russia combined. Is this the legacy we want to leave in the annals of history, and the system of democracy we are preserving for our children?

Here’s hoping the momentum of this new coalition continues to grow.

Christian Piatt is the author and creator of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS.

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TIME Religion

More Muslims Approve of Obama Than Any Other Religious Group

President Barack Obama in Texas
U.S. President Barack Obama the legendary Paramount Theater in Austin on July 10, 2014. Bob Daemmrich—Corbis

Mormons are the least approving group

More than 70 percent of Muslim-Americans approve of President Barack Obama’s job performance, a higher percentage than that of any other religious group, according to data released by Gallup Friday. On the other end of the spectrum, only 18 percent of Mormons said they approve of the President’s performance.

Overall, the data suggests a sharp religious division. Non-Christians are much more likely to approve of Obama’s performance than their Christian counterparts — minorities of Protestants, Catholics and Mormons approve of the President while majorities of Jewish, Muslim, non-religious, and other non-Christian people do so.

The data also show that most Americans continue to identify as Christians, with approximately 50 percent saying they are Protestant and 25 percent saying they are Catholic.

Obama’s approval rating across all groups stands at 43 percent.

The data, complied from 88,000 interviews, was collected during interviews for Gallup’s daily tracking poll during the first six months of 2014.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 14: A Wedding Sermon

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David Williams - www.hybriddave.com—Getty Images/Flickr Open

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.

To all the newly wed or soon to be couples out there, I offer you my wedding sermon…

In the name of God, most merciful, most compassionate

All praise is due to God, the creator and sustainer of the worlds

Peace and blessings upon the Prophets and Messengers of God,

Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad –

And all who came in between them and all who follow them

Marriage is not just a legal contract; it’s a spiritual one too. This spiritual covenant is, perhaps, most beautifully described in the Qur’an when God says that a wife is like a garment for her husband, and a husband is like a garment for his wife (2:187). If we think what a garment does – it beautifies, elevates, comforts, covers and completes a person. Likewise, you are called to be this for each other through this spiritual covenant.

Marriage has a very real and high purpose. The Qur’an puts it this way: “so that you may dwell in tranquility” (30:21). It is tranquility that gives you a taste of the spiritual home that you came from and the home to which your soul yearns to return to – the abode of the hereafter that is filled with gardens for the righteous. So help each other cultivate this garden of tranquility here on Earth in preparation for that garden of tranquility that awaits.

To grow this garden, God gives you as a wedding gift two seeds with which to plant your flowers and trees: “And God places between [your hearts] love and compassion” (30:21). Love is to always want for your spouse what you want for yourself – Prophet Muhammad’s golden rule. It is to think of your spouse and to consider him or her well when you are together and when you are not. Love means commitment and loyalty. Compassion is to strive to be and remain empathetic toward each other throughout life, and to never allow apathy to settle between yourselves. It means listening to each other and being there for each other during times of ease and difficulty. And it means being able to forgive each other for shortcomings often and readily.

Every garden needs three things to grow beautifully and healthily: fertile soil that you can plant your roots in, sunlight everyday and nourishing rain that visits often enough.

Let the fertile soil of your marriage be God consciousness. If your marriage is rooted in the powerful idea that God has brought you together and that you’re, in the end, responsible before God in how you treat each other, then your marriage will be rooted in something that can withstand even the heaviest of storms. So pray together often. Fast together when you can. And go out and give in charity and serve the needs of others always. You will find God with you.

Let the sunlight everyday be gratitude – gratitude to God, yes, but also gratitude to each other. Recognize the blessing that each of you is for the other. Let no day go by in which you do not exchange gifts of gratitude. The simplest gifts, like a warm smile on a rainy day, can be the most valuable of these gifts. Giving each other your time, no matter how busy life gets, is the most important of these gifts. And, don’t let a day go by in which you do not say “Thank you” or “God bless you,” simple but important words of appreciation.

And, let the nourishing rain be patience and perseverance. This is simply because life is not always easy and being in a relationship is not always fruits and peaches. It takes struggle, sacrifice and hard work. Take each other by the hand and commit to going forward through every peak and valley with fortitude. And as God says, do this not grudgingly but with “beautiful patience” (70:5).

In conclusion, every couple has a critical decision to make: whether this garden of tranquility will be just for yourselves and your own enjoyment, or whether this garden will be for all those around you – your families, relatives, friends, community and society. I would submit to you that a holy marriage is one that chooses the latter. And this is why we pray, “May God unite you in all that is good,” because God has brought you together to be a force for spreading goodness in the world beginning with those who are closest to you. Therefore, let your marriage be about something much greater than your own selves.

We pray, then, that when people walk through your garden of tranquility and eat the fruits thereof, they say this is surely “from among the signs of God…for those who ponder” (30:21). And we pray as God asks the righteous to pray, “O our Guardian-Sustainer! Grant that our spouses and our children are a coolness for our eyes, and make us foremost among those who are God-conscientious and righteous” (25:74).

May God bless you!

May God’s blessings descend upon you!

May God unite you in all that is good!

Amen.

TIME Religion

What the NSA Can Learn From Prophet Muhammad

Islam places immense emphasis on privacy in ways that Western governments today have only begun to match with privacy laws.

Whether it’s a legal scholar or a 7-year-old child that’s bullied on the playground, it’s hard to argue with this Harvard Law Review definition of privacy from 1890: “The right to be left alone.” Add to this simple concept a detailed U.S. Constitution and separation of powers to prevent abuse, and it seems like a no-brainer that we would leave alone those who have done nothing wrong.

Unfortunately, that simple concept seems lost on the NSA, as recent revelations indicate they invaded the privacy rights of prominent American Muslim lawyers for at least six years. As an American Muslim lawyer myself, who knows who else is reading my emails?

In spying on innocent American Muslim lawyers, the NSA likely violated the U.S. Constitution, and definitely violated the Qur’an’s powerful teachings on privacy.

Not only did the Qur’an champion privacy rights centuries before any modern constitution, but also, perhaps no law in history preserves the right to privacy as thoroughly and emphatically as does the Qur’an. Chapter 24:28-29 declares:

“O ye who believe! Enter not houses other than your own until you have asked leave and saluted the inmates thereof. That is better for you, that you may be heedful. And if you find no one therein, do not enter them until you are given permission. And if it be said to you, ‘Go back’ then go back; that is purer for you. And God knows well what you do.

In our era of NSA surveillance and warrantless wiretaps, this Qur’anic teaching’s immense value should become crystal clear. The Qur’an forbids entering any home of another person, inhabited or uninhabited, without the owner’s permission. The Qur’an further commands people to retreat immediately when they’re told to retreat from the home in question—all in the name of protecting a person’s privacy. The Qur’an makes no exceptions, but specifically commands, “enter not houses other than your own until you have asked leave.”

As far as “the right to be left alone,” how astutely the Qur’an declared thirteen-hundred years before Harvard Law, “if it be said to you ‘Go back’ then go back.”

In fact, Prophet Muhammad’s hadith, or teachings, detail how important privacy is in Islam:

“A man peeped through a hole in the door of God’s Apostle’s house, and at that time, God’s Apostle had a Midri (an iron comb or bar) with which he was rubbing his head. So when God’s Apostle saw him, he said (to him), “If I had been sure that you were looking at me (through the door), I would have poked your eye with this (sharp iron bar).” God’s Apostle added, “The asking for permission to enter has been enjoined so that one may not look unlawfully (at what there is in the house without the permission of its people).” –Bukhari

Some might allege that poking an eye is a cruel punishment. On the contrary, this hadith further emphasizes Islam’s ardent protection of an individual’s privacy. Privacy, particularly for women and minors—two classes that are most victim to sexual abuse—cannot be emphasized enough.

First, consider the ease with which a person can simply not take the unauthorized liberty of peering into another’s home without permission. Contrast that with the massive potential and actual harm that exists for those who are victim to such voyeurism. Based on the ease of compliance and the potentially devastating harm to a victim of privacy violations, an active deterrent is necessary to ensure that privacy—for all people—remains protected.

Thus, Islam places immense emphasis on privacy in ways that Western governments today have only begun to match with privacy laws. And with these NSA spying revelations, it seems that even Western government efforts in the modern era pale in comparison to the unmatched privacy laws Prophet Muhammad established fourteen-hundred years ago.

So NSA, stop spying on American Muslims and stop referring to your victims with derogatory remarks about Prophet Muhammad. Instead, if you wish to uphold the U.S. Constitution, learn about Muhammad’s ardent protection of human rights and privacy rights.

And hopefully then, we can finally be left alone.

Qasim Rashid is an attorney and national spokesperson for Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA. The above is an excerpt from Qasim’s Amazon #1 Best Selling book on Islam, EXTREMIST. Find Qasim on Twitter @MuslimIQ.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 13: Modesty

Indonesian Orphans Muslims Come Together To Celebrate Ramadan
An Indonesian Muslim girl reads the Quran as she waits for the breaking of the fast during Ramadan on July 6, 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’m often asked why many Muslim women cover their hair and dress apart. I used to reply by proclaiming the virtue of modesty. I would often receive a blank stare or a look of confusion. Slowly, I came to realize that modesty is, in fact, not only a lost virtue in our times but also a word that is understood differently by different people.

If we look at the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the first definition of modesty that comes up is “the quality of not being too proud or confident about yourself or your abilities.” All of the synonyms that go with modesty, such as “meekness” and “lowliness,” reinforce this definition. This understanding of modesty is why the American sage Maya Angelou (may God rest her soul) is quoted as saying: “I’m a religious woman. And I feel I have responsibility. I have no modesty at all. I’m even afraid of it – it’s a learned affectation and it’s just stuck on me like decals. Now I pray for humility because that comes from inside out.”

But, largely, when Muslims refer to modesty, this isn’t what they’re referring to. It is the second, and lesser known, definition that is at the heart of modesty’s virtue: “propriety in dress, speech, or conduct.” Propriety and goodly comportment are really what modesty as a virtue is all about. This virtue is universally proclaimed, to varying degrees, across faith traditions.

In Islam it takes on great importance because the Prophet Muhammad said, “every religion has a chief characteristic and the chief characteristic of Islam is modesty.” Even though we, as Muslims, have become obsessed with women’s modesty, modesty is a virtue for both men and women. In fact, the Prophet himself was described as being the epitome of modesty in his behavior with people. And, when the Qur’an tells believers to lower their lustful gazes and guard their chastity – important aspects of the modesty tradition – it begins by commanding this to men before women (24:30 – 31).

The Arabic word for modesty is hayaa. The interesting thing about this word is that it is linguistically related to the Arabic word for life (hayat). Muslim scholars and sages have taken from this that there is an intimate connection between the two terms. Modesty, it is said, is the virtue that gives spiritual life to the soul.

This connection between spiritual life and modesty exists because the virtue is not just about outward appearances; rather, it is first and foremost about the inward state of having modesty before God – meaning an awareness of divine presence everywhere and at all times that leads to propriety within oneself and in one’s most private moments.

Outward modesty means behaving in a way that maintains one’s own self-respect and the respect of others, whether in dress, speech or behavior. Inward modesty means shying away from any character or quality that is offensive to God. The outward is a reminder of the inward, and the inward is essential to the outward.

TIME Religion

Vatican Hires British Politician to Overhaul Media Strategy

Lord Chris Patten attends a mass with newly appointed cardinals held by Pope Francis at St Peter's Basilica on February 23, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican.
Lord Chris Patten attends a mass with newly appointed cardinals held by Pope Francis at St Peter's Basilica on February 23, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. Franco Origlia—Getty Images

The Vatican taps former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten to revamp its PR operation

Veteran British politician Chris Patten has been tapped to bring the Vatican’s media strategy into the 21st century. Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s prefect for the secretariat of the economy, announced the appointment of Patten at a press conference on Wednesday.

Patten, 70, a former governor of Hong Kong and former chair of the BBC Trust, will chair a new media committee at the Vatican set to oversee and modernize the various media outlets produced therein, including Vatican Radio and the Vatican TV Center. Variety reports Cardinal Pell said Wednesday that the goal of the new committee is to reach more Catholics and “recognize that the world of the media has changed radically and is changing.”

Currently, Vatican media reaches about 10% of Catholics worldwide.

“We want to build on very recent positive experiences, such as ‘The Pope App’ and the Holy Father’s Twitter account.” Pell said, according to the National Catholic Register.

Patten, a devout Catholic, has a long history of public service having served as a member of the U.K. Parliament and chairman of the Conservative Party before taking the role at BBC Trust. He recently resigned from the post for health reasons, but told the Financial Times he’s looking forward to what he called “an important and challenging” assignment.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 12: Sex Slavery and Objectification of Women

We are desperately in need of a cultural shift in how we think of women.

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.

Recently, on my drive home I was listening to Public Radio when I came across a story that just boiled my blood and sunk my heart. It was the story of mostly young and vulnerable women who were kidnapped from Tenancingo, Mexico and forced into sex slavery right here in the United States. It is the single largest source of sex slaves in America according to this report.

The latest studies estimate that there are more than 20.9 million people – mostly girls and women – who are forced into sex slavery worldwide. And, sex trafficking is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world today. These statistics can just sound like numbers until we pause and think of the individuals who suffer through this evil. We may not know them by face or name, but they do have faces and they do have names and they really do matter.

The problem of sex trafficking can seem beyond our control, but there are some wonderful organizations out there fighting the good fight everyday that we can support in whatever ways we can to help end this evil. And, as citizens we can demand that our government do more domestically and internationally to further the cause of human freedom. As a nation, abolishment of slavery was and is an important milestone in our history. We now have to go the extra mile to end slavery in all of its illegal forms starting here at home.

I would like to argue that there is something else we can do too – something that requires moral courage, introspection, and ultimately a cultural shift. We can start a movement against the sexual objectification of women. If we are really honest, the shocking evil of sex trafficking is in, some ways, only an extension and the ugliest manifestation of treating women like commodities. From selling cars and clothes to beer and chips and everything in between, we have become quite comfortable with the sexual objectification of women in society. And, somehow as long as a woman consents and is over the random age of 18 or 21, it becomes completely legal to sexually and commercially exploit her.

Sadly, many women – young girls in particular – have internalized a lot of this objectification around them on highway billboards, television and movie screens, and Internet. For it nowadays to be common and culturally acceptable for a young girl to walk around in the mall, for example, with something like “juicy” written across her backside or across her chest is an indication of the serious problem that lies before us.

Needless to say, women are not objects – they are human beings who have souls and intellects and are endowed with God-given dignity that no man or corporation should ever be able to take away from them. Starting with the way we raise our boys and our girls, we are desperately in need of a cultural shift – locally and globally – on how we think of women.

A young man once came to the Prophet Muhammad asking permission to commit fornication with women. The Prophet drew the young man closer to himself, put his hand on his shoulders, and asked, “Would you like this for your sister or your mother or your daughter?” The man immediately replied that he would hate it. The Prophet said, “then, how can I permit you to do this with someone else’s sister, mother, or daughter?”

Ramadan is the month in which we learn to discipline our sexual appetites through the spiritual discipline of fasting. The idea is not sacrifice our appetites completely at the altar of monasticism, but rather to bring our inclinations into conformity with a higher and more ethical way. If people were not slaves to their sexual appetites there would be no industry for sex slavery. And, if people learned to control their sexual glances, there would be far less objectification of women. As with everything else that is good, it all begins with the self.

TIME Religion

Quitting the Cancer ‘Battle’

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Watching my wife deal with morning sickness while I was laid low by chemo­therapy, I realized that I had the easier job. All I had to do was die

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

I am not a hero. After my last post, some readers wanted to know how I arrived at my attitude toward cancer, which is to be found somewhere between a religious person’s submis­sion and the cordial host’s welcome. A better question—one my oncologist and I wrestle with at every appointment—is why most cancer patients tumble into a bottom­less slough of despond.

My intention is not to criticize other cancer patients. To be told that you have a disease which is going to kill you in the next few months or years is to be slammed by a violent and remorseless truth that nothing in experience prepares you for. At first you can’t even process what your doctor is telling you, because there is nothing to which you can com­pare the news in order to make sense of it—it is a monster from beyond your imagination. Denial, self-pity, panic, despair: these are the natural reactions.

I was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer in the fall of 2007. Just before Sukkot my doctor phoned to warn that an “opacity” had shown up on my chest X-ray during a routine physical examination. To the Jews, Sukkot is zeman simhatenu, the “season of our rejoicing,” but there was little joy in our sukkah that year. Our season was one of dread.

Average survival time of men diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer is one to three years. Maybe ten percent live ten years. When you are first diagnosed, you obsess over the numbers. You vow, “I will be one of the ten percent!” Your vow, though, has no effect whatever on the outcome of your disease.

No matter how often you swear that you will fight the cancer, you are helpless against it. The journalistic convention in obituaries to praise the dead for their “coura­geous battle” against cancer is a lie designed to comfort the living and healthy. At best the cancer patient consents to treatment, although he must withdraw consent at some point and permit the disease to run its course. Or, as L. E. Sissman sang of the foreign country known as Hodgkin’s lymphoma where he lingered for a decade,

…I
Reside on the sufferance of authorities
Until my visas wither, and I die.

Cancer patients are betrayed by our culture’s dishonesty. Those who recover from the disease are hailed as “survivors”—a term appropriated from the Holo­caust—but while they are struggling with cancer and undergoing sometimes painful treatments for it, they are barely acknowledged. They are consigned to what Ralph Elli­son calls a “hole of invisibility.”

“There’s a possibility,” Ellison goes on to say, “that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.” Not, however, as long as the servitude of cancer is described by the platitudes our culture favors—“fight,” “battle,” “survive,” or “suc­cumb.” Is it any wonder the cancer patient, who suspects the truth even if he dare not utter it to himself, ends in inconsolable resignation?

A friend of mine who has recovered from breast cancer points out that being a patient with a life-threatening illness is a release from daily, clock-managed, to-do-list responsi­bility. Cancer patients should embrace their freedom, she argues. That most fail to do so is a testament to their mortal terror of freedom.

My own view is somewhat different. Cancer permanently disfigures a person’s self-image, and neither the culture nor his curriculum vitae includes the materials for a recon­struction.

For half a century now, American culture has been a culture of self-fulfillment. Interests must be pursued, talents developed, desires expressed, needs met: the self is con­ceived as a string of imperatives. But cancer exposes these as arbitrary and extrava­gant. The staples of selfhood, it turns out, have been neglected.

A diagnosis of cancer might be the “rift or revelation” which, as the Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran says, dries up illu­sion and begins the true self. And yet the exact opposite is what usually happens:

When you no longer believe in yourself, you stop producing or struggling…whereas it is the contrary which should have occurred, since it is precisely at this moment that, being free of all bonds, you are likely to grasp the truth, discern what is real and what is not.

If cancer patients are to be helped out of their despondency—if they are to face the reality of their condition, which to my mind is the only possible way to go on living with cancer—they must be helped to believe in themselves again.

But how? The literature, divided between breathless guides to “alternative” healing and triumphalist accounts of “survival,” is of small assistance. Perhaps my own history, though, might suggest a tentative first step.

My wife was pregnant with our fourth child during the initial months of my cancer. Watching her deal with morning sickness and a husband laid low by chemo­therapy, I realized that I had the easier job. All I had to do was die. She would be left alone with her grief and the emptiness where I once held her and we laughed together. As Dora Carring­ton cried to her dead husband Lytton Strachey in her diary, “Every day for the rest of my life you will be away.”

The self that lived for fulfillment may have collapsed like a pretense at the first word of cancer. This is not a loss, however, but a refinement. You are no longer defined by the interests you pursued or the desires you expressed: you are no more or less than the person whom your wife (or husband) and children love.

Your capacities may be diminished—you may not be able to dance with your wife, play catch with your sons, pick up your daughter—but they do not love your capacities; they love the person. And whether you accept the responsibility of being that person, or acquiesce as the cancer proves itself to be stronger than love, is a decision entirely within your command.

D. G. Myers is a critic and literary historian who taught for nearly a quarter of a century at Texas A&M and Ohio State universities. He is the author of The Elephants Teach and ex-fiction critic for Commentary.

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