Posts Tagged ‘Spirituality’

FREEDOM – Islamic reflections on Liberty

December 25, 2016

With the Name of God, All-Merciful, Most Merciful

FREEDOM

Reflections by Imam Usama Hasan, Head of Islamic Studies at Quilliam Foundation, in preparation for the Inspire Dialogue Foundation conference in Cambridge, Saturday 17th September 2016, hosted by Lord Rowan Williams, Emeritus Archbishop of Canterbury

There are many universal human rights: arguably, freedom is one of the basic ones, intertwined with life itself. As Tipu Sultan, the famous Indian resistance leader against the British, exclaimed: “better to live one day, free as a lion, than to live as a slave for a thousand years.” Caliph Omar once berated one of his commanders, who had followed the common pre-Islamic medieval wartime practice of enslaving the women and children of a defeated army, asking: “how could you enslave people whom God had created free?!” echoing Moses’ defiant response to Pharaoh in the Qur’an (26:22), which asks: “is this the favour, of which you are reminding me, that you have enslaved the Children of Israel?”

Theologically, true faith is based on free will and free choice: any practice that is not free, including faith and religious observance, cannot be genuine. Hence the famous Qur’anic declaration (2:256), “There is no compulsion in religion!”

The centrality of freedom to faith raises important issues: drugs, alcohol, mental illness, carnal lusts and social pressures all mean that our choices and decisions in life are not totally free. How, then, are these actions judged by fellow humans and by God? In particular, one of the goals of religious practice has always been to remove internal shackles that inhibit our expression of humanity, enabling greater self-awareness and realisation of our potential. Thus, a tradition of the Prophet Muhammad says that “the world is a prison for the believer,” i.e. the moral person, and great sages survived imprisonment because they were, internally, free spirits. Ideas of freedom and liberty have, of course, strongly shaped the modern world since the 18th century with the abolition of slavery, French and American republican ideals and anti-colonial independence movements.

It is my firm belief that the great philosophers, sages and prophets: Moses, Mary, Christ and Muhammad, Buddha and Confucius, and men and women of God through the ages, supported the liberation of men and women of all colours, races and religions, children and slaves, individuals and populations, from the yokes of tyranny and oppression. Our modern heroes in this regard range from Wilberforce to Jefferson to Gandhi, Jinnah, Martin Luther King and Mandela.

But today, we still have our modern forms of slavery: bonded and child labour; entire multiple-generation families working in sweatshop factories; highly-organised international rings dealing in human trafficking, including that of children, for financial and sexual exploitation. Therefore, we need to address the above problems by rekindling the same spirit that historically liberated children from labour into education, slaves from enslavement into liberty, peoples from colonisation into independence, and people of colour from segregation and apartheid into civic equality.

Tony Blair, whilst UK Prime Minister, once said in an historic speech on Capitol Hill that “to be American is to be free.” In reality, as spiritual-animal beings made in the image of the Divine, to be human is to be free. Now, let’s continue with working towards inner and outer freedom, and sharing it with our fellow travellers, with the goal of reaching our full and common humanity.

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INNER AND OUTER ASPECTS OF ISLAMIC RITUAL PRAYER (SALAT)

June 26, 2015

Bismillah. This is about some of the beautiful symbolism and meaning behind the salat or ritual prayer, one of the five pillars of Islam and to be performed at least five times a day.  When the salat is reduced to pure ritual without any understanding of the Arabic words or of the symbolism of the actions, many inward and outward problems arise, God forbid!  But the salat is the believer’s daily ascension (mi’raj) and communion with God: it is up to us to deepen this daily experience of ours. It is the Muslim’s daily practice of mindfulness, meditation and remembrance, to develop a deep wellspring of love, faith and humility to equip us for life’s individual, social and political challenges. May God continue to bless our journeys!

All italicised phrases are from the Qur’an and Sunna; references are omitted for ease of reading and clarity: this is not an academic article, but an attempt to elucidate certain indications and symbols, with the hope of helping people on their own journeys.

With the Name of God, All-Merciful, Most Merciful

INNER AND OUTER ASPECTS OF ISLAMIC RITUAL PRAYER (SALAT)

  1. Prayer times: Time is sacred (God says, I am Time); we offer each prayer within its time in order to share in the sacredness of every part of the day and night, and to give thanks for that portion of sacred time.
  2. Washing (ablutions) before prayer: we cleanse our limbs and hearts of wrongdoing.
  3. Ablutions are nullified by toilet or sexual acts: these represent our basic animal natures, so we wash again to symbolise recovering our angelic natures in order to stand before God.
  4. Facing Mecca: The Ka’bah, as the House of God, symbolises the heart, which is also the House of God. Whilst facing Mecca outwardly, we turn inwardly to face the home of God at the centre and core of our being. So turn your face towards the Sacred Mosque!
  5. Standing in straight rows: we are in fellowship, equal before God, and imitating the ranks of the angels. The hearts of the people of Paradise beat as one … By Those Who Stand in Ranks!
  6. Raising the hands at the beginning of the prayer: symbolises the “lifting of the veil” between us and God. In prayer, we are talking directly to our Lord.
  7. Standing before God in prayer: facing up to life as a journey to God; a foretaste and preparation for standing before God on Judgment Day.
  8. Keeping the eyes open, rather than closed, in prayer: do not be veiled by multiplicity from Unity, nor by Unity from multiplicity.
  9. Lowering the head and looking at the ground (if practised): humility before God.
  10. Keeping the chin up and looking straight ahead towards Mecca (if practised): facing life, and one’s inward reality, directly.
  11. Folding the arms across the body (if practised): the servant’s pose before the Master.
  12. Reciting the Opening Chapter of the Qur’an (Surat al-Fatiha): we are sharing in a communion with God. God says, I have divided the prayer between Me and My servant …
  13. Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds; All-Merciful, Most Merciful; Master and King of the Day of Judgment: God says, These belong to Me, as our glorification is of God.
  14. You alone we worship; You alone we ask for help: God says, This is (shared) between Me and My servant; the God-human relationship.
  15. Guide us to the Straight Path; the path of those whom You have favoured, who neither receive (Your) anger nor stray: God says, These belong to My servant, and My servant shall have whatever he or she requests.
  16. Reciting further from the Qur’an: the remembrance of God continues; God and the angels bear witness to it. Truly, the recitation at dawn was witnessed.
  17. Bowing: humility before God; bearing life’s hardships, followed by standing tall again.
  18. Prostration, with forehead, nose, hands, knees and feet pressed to the ground: ultimate humility before God; one is closest to God in this posture, which is outwardly humiliation, inwardly elevation; our hearts are higher than our brains, whilst the rest of the time, our brains are higher than our hearts; Pray hard, for your prayers are most likely to be accepted in this position; death.
  19. The second prostration, after a brief sitting: the second death, at the blowing of the Horn. Our Lord! You caused us to die twice, and to live twice …
  20. In prayer, do not sit like a dog, peck like a cockerel or squat like a monkey: throughout prayer, we must rise above our animal natures and try to inhabit our angelic natures.
  21. Standing, bowing, prostration: the body forms the Arabic letters Alif (A), Dal (D) and Mim (M) respectively, hence spelling Adam during the prayer; we are seeking our original Paradisal, primordial humanity before the Fall through our communion with God.

    [In Hebrew and Arabic, the Aleph/Alif (A) also signifies the number 1, so “Adam” is identical to “1 dam” meaning “one blood”: humanity is united; we have different skin colours, but we bleed the same colour. Red blood cells have no DNA (although white ones do), so in a sense blood represents our common humanity – much of it does not have our unique, genetic fingerprints that are found in every other of the trillions of cells of our body.]

  22. Standing, bowing, prostration: the body forms a straight line, right angle and (semi-)circle respectively, the bases of all geometry and form; we are signifying that we are at one with Nature and its beautiful forms. God is Beautiful, and loves Beauty.
  23. Sitting in remembrance of God at the end of the prayer: a foretaste of the eternal rest in Paradise.
  24. The prayer ends with the greeting of peace (salam): Their greeting on the Day they meet Him is Peace; Their greeting there (in the Garden) is Peace; they hear no vain or sinful talk, only the words, Peace, Peace!

Usama Hasan

London, Ramadan 1436 / June 2015

Inner Aspects of Ramadan

August 23, 2011

With the Name of Allah, All-Merciful, Most Merciful

Inner Aspects of Ramadan

Three Levels of Fasting

Imam al-Ghazzali, in his Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din (Revival of the Sciences of Religion), describes the following three levels of fasting (cf. Inner Dimensions of Islamic Worship, publ. Islamic Foundation, which is a translation by the late Mukhtar Holland of an extract from the Ihya’):

  1. Fasting of the body: abstaining from food, drink and sex
  2. Fasting of the tongue: abstaining from backbiting, gossip, slander, idle talk, etc.
  3. Fasting of the heart and soul: abstaining from the remembrance of anything or anyone except God and engaging constantly in dhikr Allah, the mention or remembrance of God

Patience & Gratitude (Sabr & Shukr)

Allah says often in the Qur’an (e.g. 14:5, 34:19, 42:33), especially in regard to the ups and downs of life and history that constitute the Days of God (ayyam Allah), “… In this there are Signs for every extremely patient one, given to much gratitude.” (sabbar shakur, both intensive active participles derived from sabr and shukr, respectively)

The Prophet (peace be upon him) taught, “One who eats gratefully is like one who fasts patiently.” (al-ta’im al-shakir ka l-sa’im al-sabir, a sound hadith found in the Sunan collections)  Thus, eating wholesome food with thanks to God is spiritually equal to depriving oneself of food and drink for the sake of God.

Some of the early Muslim authorities (Salaf) said, especially in explaining the above Qur’anic ayah, “Faith has two halves: half of faith is patience; the other half is gratitude.” (al-iman nisfan: nisf sabr wa nisf shukr)

Thus, as Imam Ibn al-Qayyim explains, Patience and Gratitude are two sides of the same coin of faith: we are required to have patience in troubled times, and show gratitude to God in good times.  This is why these two qualities are mentioned in the Qur’an alongside lessons from time and history, or the Days of God.

Showing gratitude to God includes being grateful to people through whom we receive God’s favours. It also includes using our God-given talents, skills and faculties for good and noble purposes, rather than for disobeying God and engaging in mischief and evil: all good actions thus become part of the worship of God.

Imam Ibn al-Qayyim, further explains the importance of balancing these two qualities to achieve true faith and grow closer to God, with the following simile: “Patience and Gratitude are like the two wings of a believer in their flight to their Lord.”

Another beautiful teaching of the Prophet, peace be upon him, that reinforces these themes, is the following: “Wonderful is the situation of the believer! If he or she is afflicted by misfortune, he or she is patient, and this is good for him or her.  If he or she is touched by good fortune, he or she is grateful, and this is good for him or her.  This (grace) is not available to anyone except the believer!” (A sound hadith transmitted by Bukhari and Muslim)

(For further reading, refer to Patience and Gratitude by Ibn al-Qayyim, trans. Huda Khattab, publ. Dar al-Taqwa, London)

Life & Death

The Prophet (peace be upon him) famously taught that “The person fasting enjoys two moments of happiness: (1) happiness upon breaking the fast and (2) happiness upon meeting the Lord.”

Thus, the joy of iftar or Fitr (breaking the fast) is a foretaste of the joy of meeting God.

The daily cycle of fast and break-fast is a symbol of life and death: the daily fast symbolises the constraints, difficulties and tribulations of life; the daily break-fast symbolises the joy of death and meeting God, for the believer.

These inner meanings are wider: the entire month of fasting symbolises the tribulations of life, whilst ‘Id al-Fitr (the Festival of Breaking the Fast) symbolises the joy of meeting God.

The practice of I’tikaf (Seclusion in the Mosque) during the last ten days and nights of Ramadan, partly in order to seek the greatest night of the year, also contains reminders of these themes, amongst many other benefits.  Seclusion in the mosque entails devoting time to prayer, remembrance of God and other types of worship, avoiding worldly matters completely and minimising profane thought and talk.  Seclusion affords much time for silence and reflection.  The time of I’tikaf, i.e. the last third of Ramadan, is followed immediately by the ‘Id celebration.

I’tikaf may thus be seen and felt as a foretaste of our time in the grave, followed by ‘Id, which we hope is a foretaste of Paradise!

The authentic Sunnah (Way of the Prophet, peace be upon him) is that women may also stay in the mosque also for the spiritual seclusion of I’tikaf: many of the Prophet’s wives and female disciples engaged in this practice.  Mosques should thus be available to women for this uplifting bodily-and-spiritual practice.

Ramadan Cheer, Generosity and Spirit

As described by his Companions, Allah be pleased with them, the Prophet, peace be upon him, was the most generous of people and was especially generous during the month of Ramadan: even more generous than the winds that herald live-giving rains.  He, peace be upon him, himself explained why this was so: it was because the Archangel Jibril (Gabriel), the Ruh al-Qudus (Spirit of Holiness or Holy Spirit), would visit him daily to rehearse the Qur’an with him, consolidating during each Ramadan all that had been revealed of the Qur’an so far.  In the final Ramadan of the Prophet’s life, Jibril rehearsed the Qur’an with him twice, indicating that the revelation of the Qur’an was almost complete.  All the minor variations in the Qur’anic revelation were thus superseded by this “final rehearsal” (al-‘ard al-akhir), as it is known in Qur’anic studies.

Much may be learnt from this breathtaking meeting of Spirits (the Prophet Muhammad, the Noble Qur’an and the Archangel Gabriel) during Ramadan in Madinah during that Blessed Age:

  • The importance of visiting each other to strengthen spiritual contact.  The Prophet, peace be upon him, would sometimes complain to Gabriel outside Ramadan that the latter did not visit him enough, upon which the verse of the Qur’an was revealed, describing the movements of the angels, “We do not descend, except by the command of your Lord …” (19:64)
  • The blessed practice of rehearsing as much as one knows of the Qur’an during Ramadan, especially with someone who has preserved it equally or better (e.g. a teacher or colleague).  This should be done whether a person knows one verse or ten, one surah or ten, and in the case of preservers of the whole Qur’an (huffaz), one recitation (qira’ah) or ten.
  • The blessings of spirituality and generosity that arise from the above two matters: the Prophet’s generosity peaked during Ramadan due to these two factors.

Thus, Ramadan is the month of: fasting, recitation of the Qur’an, remembrance of God, generosity, mercy, charity and Jihad (struggling against all forms of evil).  And just as our Christian friends speak about “Christmas cheer,” Muslims should manifest the “Ramadan cheer, generosity and spirit.”

Tips for Getting the Most out of Ramadan

The following obvious tips may be derived from the Divine guidance to the Prophet, peace be upon him, “So when you have completed and become free (of worldly matters), stand (in worship).  And to your Lord, turn your desire!” (94:7-8)

  • Take time off work if possible
  • Get important worldly matters out of the way before Ramadan, e.g. house/car/furniture purchases and maintenance, bills, payments, etc.
  • Devote time to worship in all its forms, e.g. prayer, fasting, charity, reconciliation amongst people, serving people and the rest of God’s creation in general

May Allah shower upon us all the blessings of Ramadan, this year and every year.

© Usama Hasan

Hajj – The Journey of Love

June 7, 2009

An incomplete draft translation of the wonderful Qasidah Mimiyyah by Imam Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, with explanatory notes.  The translation has reached 133 of the 229 lines (abyat) of the original Arabic text, so there’s still some more to do, God-willing. The English rendering is not great poetry, but I’m simply trying to convey some of the meaning in this great Qasidah.

Hajj – The Journey of Love

Hajj – The Journey of Love (Arabic text)

THE CHARACTER OF THE PEOPLE OF THE QUR’AN

June 7, 2009

A must-read book by Imam al-Ajurri of Baghdad & Mecca (d. 360 H), especially for those who intend to memorise any or all of the Qur’an, or who have already memorised some or all of it.

THE CHARACTER OF THE PEOPLE OF THE QURAN