Preparing for Ramadhan 2015…

dreamstime_xs_42141645

As the month of Ramadhan rapidly approaches this year (approximately June 18th- July 16th 2015), I have decided to share some of my thoughts on this blessed event. In Mecca, Saudi Arabia the daily duration will be about 15 hours per day, about 17 hours in Beijing, China, around 16 hours in New York City and around 13 hours in Jakarta, Indonesia. Current estimates of the world Muslim population are close to 1.5 billion people. In short, quite a few people will be performing some type of Ramadhan activity during this time period.

I shall preface my remarks by saying that my thoughts have been greatly inspired by Sultan Abdulhameed. He runs sessions entitled “The Quran Discussion Group,“ in New York. We examine and give our personal interpretations of what particular Surahs and Ayats mean to us. It is particularly mind expanding. We are encouraged to share our personal insights. While not widely followed in much of Muslim society, the approach does seem to be gathering traction. It has reinforced my faith and I always leave these discussions with an improved understanding of the role I can play in making for a better world.

I met Sultan about five years ago, when I was trying to recover from a low point in my life. He had just authored a book, The Quran and the Life of Excellence. I later read it and am continually transformed by its contents to this day.

Ramadhan commemorates the time when the first verses of the Quran were revealed to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) about 1400 years ago. It is considered a time to work on one’s Taqwa or self restraint, to be consciously aware in the worship of God (SWT) and attain nearness to Him and in so doing, seek to become more pious.

I have always used this event as a time to refocus my energies on the discipline (or lack there of) that has brought me this far on my journey. There have been good times as well as bad times. God (SWT) is praised for all of them! There were lessons to be taught and absorbed. I continue to cope and learn.

God (SWT) is the best teacher!

Ramadhan is the time when I especially try to work on my transformation process. Self-evaluating people learn to set goals for the future and map out a strategy for achieving them. “It is possible for everyone to move towards the life they want by making systematic changes month by month and year by year. A happy life is a balanced life and we can aim to succeed in all its aspects. Everyone’s life is different but some areas are important to most people”:

– Spiritual growth
– Happiness in personal relationships
– Quality of your health
– Financial freedom
– Professional success

 

Spiritual Growth

For some Muslims, prayer can be an empty ritual. One’s mind can get easily distracted. In many cases, people may be speaking words that they do not fully understand. How is this supposed to help transform anyone?

While English is my native language, my prayers are in Arabic and English. It takes a little extra effort but after 40 some odd years of reciting, my understanding is enhanced and my gesture is sincere.

The five disciplines in fasting, which Muslims try to work on during Ramadhan, are:

– Abstaining from food during daylight hours
– Abstaining from drink during daylight hours
– Abstaining from sexual activity during daylight hours
– Waking before dawn
– Self-evaluation or reflection

Admittedly, some of these disciplines are easier to adhere to than others, but think about it, none of these are really that life threatening for most people. This is about more than simply depriving oneself of the things that may give us pleasure or fulfillment. It has been said that the straight path leads directly to God (SWT). This in turn makes it less likely that one will succumb to assorted compulsive avoidances and addictions and will increase the likelihood that one will act wisely, ethically and humanely. We must not yield to the potential irritability, which may occur.

Fasting is a powerful method of learning to be patient in adversity. I tend to view it as attempt to gain better control over one’s nafs or ego. It is about trying to develop a softer heart and feeling compassion for those less fortunate. I recall a gentleman I met once from Syria. His “always cheerful” demeanor particularly struck me. He said that, “Ramadhan was like Christmas to Muslims!” He would smile and place holiday lights in his windows during that time of the year.

 

Happiness in Relationships

Have you ever had everything you could hope for and still felt something was missing? This was I in 2009. I thought I was a good person. I was in fairly good shape. I ate right. I was regularly mistaken for someone about ten years younger. I was very kind to my staff. I was generous in monetary contributions. My family life was not what I had expected it to be. I was in the process of changing it.

One day, while rising from my morning prayer, I became dizzy and passed out. I waited four days before seeking medical attention. I was later diagnosed with a stroke! My speech was slurred, my coordination skills were a bit off but I was lucky. I was told that the results could have been much worse had I not taken good care of my physical health. But matters did in fact continue to deteriorate. I was involved in a nasty divorce at the time. My mental health began to suffer. This jolly, happy go lucky fellow developed severe depression! It was a time when I could see nothing good happening out of my current situation. I could not sleep. All of my thoughts became very grim. It was as if all of my fighting spirit had been sapped from my body. I lost all sense of hope and things did eventually get progressively worse. There were points when I actually considered suicide. I was in this state for a year before I was determined to get help.

I was later treated for a serotonin deficiency and encouraged to attend therapy sessions for the depression. Finally, I had a scientific answer for what was affecting my moods. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter or hormone, which affects how you feel from a biochemical point of view. In its absence or lack of, you can experience loneliness and depression. Most antidepressants focus on the enhanced production of serotonin.

This was the beginning of a turning point in my life. It was at this time that I developed a greater sense of compassion for my fellow man and woman. Imagine a room full of people that were all more or less suffering from some form or type of depression. There was a New York City police officer, a Hasidic Jew, assorted people with chemical drug dependencies; adolescents with self inflicted cutting tendencies, abused housewives and me. We all shared our stories and our plights. All of a sudden my particular problems seemed less important. I listened to the stories of these individuals and wished there was something I could do for them but I was basically in the same boat.

I was able to survive this episode based in large part based on the acknowledgement of goodwill and support received from close friends, my children and other family members. I began to realize the importance of my role in other people’s lives. There is a verse in the Quran, which says, “God (SWT) does not burden a soul beyond its capacity (2:286)”and a similar Biblical verse, “And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear (1 Corinthians 10:13).” The fact that I was able to endure these things has only strengthened my belief in God (SWT) and the trials and tests He may put us through. They are all there to make us stronger.

One night while offering my prayers, I asked God (SWT) for aid in finding that special mate, someone “to love forever and always, here on Earth and in Jannah.” Years later, after a worldwide search, much patience and perseverance, I finally came across that special person, my “better-half.” Today my mind is sharp again. My spirit soars and I am truly grateful to God (SWT) for all that has happened. Alhamdulillah! (Praise God!)

 

Quality of Health

Ramadhan is the perfect time to start to get our health in order. An office assistant that once worked for me used say that “deprivation builds character.” She was referring to her approach to child-raising but the statement holds much merit beyond its original use.

Research has shown that the mental focus achieved during Ramadhan increases the level of brain-derived neurotrophic factors, which cause the body to produce more brain cells, thus improving brain function. Furthermore, a distinct reduction in the amount of the hormone cortisol, produced by the adrenal gland means that stress levels are greatly reduced both during and after Ramadhan.

I can think of no better a time to try and rid oneself of poor habits than Ramadhan. Many of the vices like smoking and sugary foods should be avoided or restricted during this time. As you abstain from them your body will gradually acclimate itself to their absence, until your addiction is kicked for good.

The reduction of food eaten throughout the Ramadhan period causes the stomach to gradually contract, meaning that you will have to consume less food before feeling full. By not eating during daylight hours you will also find that your metabolism becomes more efficient, meaning the amount of nutrients absorbed for your food improves. This is because on an increase in a hormone called adiponectin, which is produced by the combination of fasting and eating late at night. It allows your muscles to absorb more nutrients. If you want to get in the habit of healthy eating, Ramadhan is the perfect time to start.

I try to follow these suggestions in addition to pursuing a regular exercise routine. Ramadhan is not a time to become lax or lazy!

 

Financial Freedom

We live in a society where money and finance play an important role in determining the conditions of people’s well-being. In many instances, it can lead to increased stress. Differences in the approach to handling finances often lead to marital discord. Following simple rules related to budgeting and investing a part of your income to help create future security can alleviate some of these problems. Establishing a plan to take advantage of investment opportunities should be a part of your strategy to build wealth. Finally, being charitably generous may also help multiply your wealth. “You can thrive by regularly giving away a portion of your income to worthwhile causes. The Quran mandates 2.5% or more.”

Once you realize how easy it is to identify the sources of routine frivolous expenditures and begin to reduce them, it will be that much easier to work towards achieving your financial goals.

 

Professional Success

A lot of people are unhappy with the jobs they hold. This could be due to unclear choices made earlier in life. It could have been due to jobs taken out of necessity rather than choice. In either event, if you are not happy, develop a plan to change your situation.

As circumstances may change, some professions may disappear and others may thrive. You can take action by planning to change your conditions. There are books that you can read, workshops that you can attend and there is the Internet. Only those who pro-actively plan their careers continue to do well in changing circumstances.

Over the years, I have tended to view my work as love in action. I have a passion for what I do. I have been blessed with having benefited from a good education and have applied the skills learned in successfully having chosen a fairly good career. My thought process has changed. The challenge is in being motivated not by external rewards so much as by self-expression and service to humanity.

 

A Time to Recalibrate One’s GPS!

In summing up what Ramadhan means to me, it is a time of self-assessment, a time to check your GPS to determine if you have strayed too far off course and still have time to correct it. Some may view it as just another ritual, but it is far more than that. It is spiritual. It is scientific. It is beneficial to your health. It can provide a time in planning to improve one’s life and hopefully also move closer to God (SWT). As cited earlier: God (SWT) is the best teacher! (Allah-u-Alim!)

 

Sources of Inspiration

  1. Abdulhameed, Sultan. The Quran and the Life of Excellence. N.p: Outskirts, 2010. Print
  2. ‘Abd al-Haqq via Sufis Without Borders Yahoo Group
  3. “Finding “my Better Half,” the Other Half of My Deen…”This Is My Beloved. FencingPoet, 2 Dec. 2014. Web.
  4. “7 Surprising Health Benefits of Ramadan.”Realbuzz 4. N.p., 20 July 2012. Web.
  5. Bolt, Laurence G. Zen and the Art of Making a Living: A Practical Guide to Creative Career Design. Penguin Group, 1999. Print
Advertisements

Breaking One’s Fast during Ramadhan- Iftar

Iftar at Masjid Al-Hikmah

Iftar at Masjid Al-Hikmah

Iftar at Masjid Al-Hikmah

Iftar at Masjid Al-Hikmah

One of the times most looked toward to during the month of Ramadhan is Iftar, the ending of fasting for the day.

A lot of Americans are not aware that more than 200 years ago, President Jefferson hosted a sunset dinner because it was Ramadhan, for his guest, the first Muslim ambassador to the United States, from Tunisia. This is the first known Iftar at the White House. Former President Bush and President Obama followed the tradition.

This religious observance takes place directly after Maghrib time, which connotes the sunset prayer. This is an especially good time in New York because of the diversity of Muslim cultures. Whether participating in the offering of food to the poor as a form of charity, a practice dating back to Prophet Muhammad, or just socializing and getting to “know your neighbor,” it brings a better sense of awareness among people. I have a personal belief that “food brings people together.” There are so many different cuisines! Lamb sausage, chicken rolls, Shami Kebabs, samosas, pakoras, these are my personal favorites and I love to eat!

This month I have had the pleasure of sharing Iftar with an Egyptian family who has owned a bagel shop on the Upper East Side for over 20 years. I frequent the place, weekly. Earlier in the week, I shared Iftar with a discussion group I regularly attend. Last night I attended Iftar at Masjid Al-Hikmah, a predominantly Indonesian Mosque in Queens.

I have often said the world is a beautiful place. As I strive to improve my sense of compassion and humility, my eyes are cleared and I am able to see just how beautiful it is…

Thinking pleasant, uplifting thoughts…

Mail Attachment

When I last checked it was 106 F in NYC. Today is the ninth day of Ramadhan. For those of you who are not aware, Ramadhan (also known as Ramadan or Ramzan) is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. It is a period of prayer, fasting, charity-giving and self-accountability for Muslims in the United States as well as the rest of the world. The first verses of the Qu’ran were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) during the last third of Ramadhan, making this an especially holy period.

The period when Muslims end their fast at the end of each day is called Iftar. There are no special foods that need be eaten to break one’s fast, but your body may have special nutritional needs which should be met. Traditionally, a lot of Muslims will end their daily fast by consuming a few dates. This is a staple fruit found in the Middle East that is an excellent source of fiber, sugar, minerals and carbohydrates. This will generally aid the body in maintaining health.

The important thing is to avoid over-eating! Meals should consist of some vegetables, salads, chicken or fish or lean meat such as lamb or beef, grains such as rice, bread or pasta, and a serving of fruit. Drinking lots of water is very important and cannot be overstressed!

One must remember that this is a time of introspection. It should be about cultivating better character and humility. It is about learning that one can “do without,” and reconnecting with God (SWT).

For some reason, I feel particularly “amorous” today. Everyone gets a smile from me, today. It is far too hot to exert the energy to be grim. I will place a bowl of ice cubes and water outside for the wild animals that may be hanging out in the neighborhood. Most of all, I will think pleasant, uplifting thoughts today.

I think there is a lesson to be learned during this harsh weather. We all suffer to some degree, some more than others. We can all endure the plight a little better with just a slight gesture from others. All it takes is a smile or a bowl of water for a few stray animals. Try it! You will feel better…

Observing Layt al-Qadr at New York University on the night of August 14, 2012

A couple of nights ago I had the opportunity to attend Layt al-Qadr (the Night of Power) with members of the NYU community. This event happens during the last part of Ramadhan. Layt al-Qadr is considered the most appropriate time of the entire year to pray for salvation and blessings. It is believed that a Muslim’s past sins are forgiven if the person prays throughout this night.

It is the Holiest night in the Holiest month on the Islamic calendar. I with many others spent the entire night in prayer at NYU seeking forgiveness for our sins and help from God (SWT) to accomplish our objectives in life.

It was a most enlightening experience. Normally I tend to do things in solitude but for some reasons lately I have wanted to be with other like-minded people. I found the group of university people most invigorating. Even at 60, I was able to keep up with them in prayer throughout the night.

About this night, it is said:

BEHOLD, from on high have We bestowed this [divine writ] on Night of Destiny. And what could make thee conceive what it is, that Night of Destiny? The Night of Destiny is better than a thousand months: in hosts descend in it the angels, bearing divine inspiration by their Sustainer’s leave; from all [evil] that may happen does it make secure, until the rise of dawn. [Qur’an, Chapter 97, Asad translation]

For a better description of the meaning of Layt al-Qadr than I could ever provide, I refer you to a post by Imam Khalid Latif, University Chaplain for NYU, Executive Director of the Islamic Center at NYU and Chaplain for the NYPD. He refers to it in his August 14th, 2012 blog for the Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/imam-khalid-latif/ramadan-reflection-day-26-laylatul-qadr_b_1776336.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000003).

It started with us breaking fast (Iftar) at the Islamic Center at New York University, performing the Magrib prayer and subsequent Isha prayer and later moving to a residence hall where people were to pray throughout the night.

I left the first part of the event and proceeded at a slow leisurely pace to the residence hall where the second part was held. I seemed to be trying to kill time before attending the main event. I stopped at Madison Square Park and sat for a while. I observed people strolling, other people sitting and still others just trying to enjoy this balmy evening. I took to walking along the side streets. I noticed a few hobos sleeping outside a pristine building. I wondered why this condition had to exist. They seemed so content sleeping under the stars.

Finally moving on, I made it to the residence hall. I could see that it was starting to get crowded. Perhaps more people were going to be there than originally was expected.

While waiting for the proper mindset and prayers to begin, I couldn’t help overhearing a couple of brothers talking about baseball. I thought, when was the last time you heard “suspected terrorists” talking about baseball. But then again, they weren’t suspected terrorists to me. They were my brothers in faith. They were as “American as apple pie,” with many of the same basic values as anyone else and yet I am sure they are probably highly scrutinized every time they tried to board a plane.

The Imam spoke briefly about getting in the right frame of mind for prayer and the seriousness of the event. My thoughts became more focused. I began to think about what I sought forgiveness for and what I myself needed Allah (SWT)’s assistance to do.  I also thought about the hobos, and the impoverished throughout the world. I have always been an idealist.

Finally we all lined up and began to pray in unison. I will just say that everything about the ritual was very systematic and well coordinated. My left knee began to ache halfway though, a couple of hours later, but it didn’t seem to matter to me. “God does not burden beyond one’s capacity.” It was a truly defining moment. Imagine if you can, standing before the Creator and being able to ask forgiveness for your transgressions and for hope of a better tomorrow…

Toward the end of the event, I heard the sound of thunder outside and felt as if someone was trying to get my attention. I was listening…!

In the end I prayed that Allah (SWT) listened to my prayer and supplications and acknowledged them.