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Contemplative Practices in Islam

“The World Is Too Much with Us,” by William Wordsworth

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
…For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It seems that as early as 1807, Wordsworth complained of the world and the fast pace of life as a source of discontentment. I wonder what he would think, if he were alive today. What has changed?

As someone who glides through life, moving from task to task, I have felt that the world is too much with me; and despite all my cleverness, I too, have been beset by discontentment.

The topic of discontentment has been kicked around by ancient philosophers and religious leaders since time immemorial. Taoists call it imbalance. For example, the Qur’an calls it “a sickness of the heart” (2:10).

In the following quote, the famous Christian monk, St. Augustine, proposed a remedy:  “[true contentment] is felt only in the presence of God  … Our whole business then, in life, is to restore the heart to health so that God can be seen or felt.”

I embraced Augustine’s remedy and plotted a modest course of spiritual paths that would restore my heart to health and lead me to be in the presence of God.  At first, thinking I might be better off to want less from the world, in exchange for more happiness, I considered the path of asceticism. But, I realized that such a life wasn’t for me, and set out to find a different path.

Unfamiliar with contemplative practices, I imagined contentment on the faces of two familiar spiritual leaders. I pictured Buddha, seemingly detached from the world, sitting peacefully under a tree and wearing an expression of serenity and peace. The other face was that of Christ, suspended above the world on a cross, being crucified and wearing a similar expression of peace. Neither of them had   betrayed the pain or suffering caused by the world around them.

I had some experience with the practice of Transcendental Meditation, which led me to examine the basic elements of meditation and my own capabilities. The first is the importance of being self-disciplined. Since meditation must be practiced with regularity, being self-disciplined is crucial for meditation to be effective in life.  Another feature of meditation is its demands on one’s time. Stepping away from the world to sit in the lotus position for hours is a sacrifice. Thus, one must be prepared for self-sacrifice on the path of contemplative practice.

Wanting to learn more about contemplative practices in my own tradition, Islam, I chose to analyze four of the five pillars familiar to every practicing Muslim. The pillars of faith have always been described as “obligations,” so I had never before stopped to think of their contemplative features, or compare them to Zen Buddhism and Transcendental Meditation.

The first pillar is the core belief in the Oneness of God− known as tawhid, in Arabic. Tawhid is the heightened awareness of God’s presence, in everything we do. To achieve that heightened awareness, tawhid demands that one enters into an exclusive relationship with Allah (God). The exclusive relationship blocks out anyone or anything, and prohibits any other relationship of similar importance. In other words, tawhid excludes what attracts us in the world and recognizes no other authority besides Allah−not parents, teachers, or friends.

In the hierarchy of contemplative practice in Islam this exclusive relationship with Allah is the foundation. In practice, being in that relationship, during prayer, or fasting, or acting with kindness and respect toward another living thing, can result in a deep sense of contentment.

The second pillar is praying five times a day. Islamic prayer is similar to meditation in defining the elements of contemplative practice. For instance, it demands your time. It requires that you disengage from the world around you −five times a day, every day. Similar to meditation, praying five times a day requires self-discipline and self-sacrifice.

How to pray five times a day? To begin the practice, I had to develop more self-discipline.  But it was more complicated than that. I was paralyzed by my conflict of interests.  Do I watch the rest of my favorite TV program? Do I end my phone conversation? Can I stop my work? Maybe, I should check my email or phone, one more time. Do I excuse myself from a fun-gathering of friends? Do I inform my boss that on my break, I will be praying? But then, these questions get to the heart of the spiritual quest for contentment. We must either stay the course, or stop the world I want to get off to commune with God.

At first, I tried and failed to pray five times a day because I was trying to squeeze my prayers into my busy, important life.  At each intersection, my busy life would block me from crossing.  My breakthrough came as a result of reading the oft-repeated command in the Qur’an that says “establish prayer” in your life. I had read this phrase in passages many times, but this time, I was able to derive a new meaning. I realized that in order to go to work, I had to arrange my life around the established commuter train schedule. Understanding this key word, I identified the prayer schedule, which follows the movement of the sun from dawn to evening, as the established schedule for me to arrange my life around.

I also had to think of my secular life overall. I learned that I would have to intentionally carve out a sacred space and time. At first, I could only find time for one prayer a day; but eventually, I was able to arrange my life around the five daily prayers. Yes, it meant going out to lunch with my sister after prayer time. And yes, it took some sacrifice to leave an engagement. But taking time out to commune with God five times a day has given me a deep sense of contentment that I have never felt before. Moreover, I have discovered that time out is addictive; and, like any time-honored, life-consuming addiction, doing it is easier than not doing it.

But the biggest challenge remained: how to keep the demands of the world at bay, during prayer or meditation? When I studied Transcendental Meditation in the early 1970s, the Yogi had devised a method to protect the meditation from worldly intrusions.  He gave me a mantra (which cost $450) and warned me that the world would come as “thought bubbles,” and preoccupy the mind. To train my mind, I was told to repeat the mantra, and that would release the intruding thoughts into the air. I found this to be a constant battle that I never could win.

In Islamic prayer, it is also necessary to train the mind to protect it from worldly intrusions. The method is similar but different (and there is no charge for it).  The method starts by reciting “Allah whoo Akbar” (god is great), at the beginning of the prayer. The gesture is a conscious effort to be in the exclusive relationship with God (tawhid). Next, the mind is kept engaged and busy, quietly reciting Arabic prayers from memory. The prayers are in Arabic because it is the language of the Qur’an. But for most people who do not understand Arabic, the sounds are really more like mantras than meaningful words. It is preferable to learn some translation of the prayer in English. Although, even with that, the flow of the Arabic recited from memory is still an effective barrier to the thought bubbles.

Performing prayer also requires a precise choreography, involving the body transitioning into three different positions. Keeping track of the physical movements and the flow of Arabic sounds, helps me to stay focused more often than not; the focus being, remembrance of God and keeping the world at bay. It is always a challenge. But when I have succeeded to pray five times in a day, I feel a sense of contentment and triumph. It’s not because I am praying for God’s sake. I am praying for my own sanity’s sake. And for that, there is no success in my life that holds a greater meaning.

When I asked myself if and when I had ever felt particularly close to God, I thought of the holy month of Ramadan, another pillar of Islam. During Ramadan, Muslims fast from before dawn to sunset. Christians and Jews are familiar with fasting and how it can change daily life. But for Muslims the fast is a long and difficult change.  It lasts for a month and includes abstaining from food, water, and sex, during the daylight hours. Oftentimes, the person fasting is deprived of sleep as well.

In my experience, the suffering of extreme thirst and the depletion of energy sometimes overwhelms me in the late afternoon, when there are still 3 to 4 more hours left of daylight. When I feel this way, I can’t help but ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” I know it is a test of my relationship with Allah. How deep is my commitment and love? To past the test, I remind myself that I have chosen to fast and promised God I would complete the fast on this day. Once I have consciously reiterated my intentions (purifying intentions was taught by Jesus in the Gospel) and renewed my relationship with God, I experience a gratifying sense of closeness to God.

As I once heard a Methodist minister explain, it’s not the suffering that gives an act meaning; it’s that the relationship with God holds up under the suffering. In fact, it is that suffering and its consequence that I miss most, when the month of Ramadan is over.

Hajj is another pillar of Islam. Prior to my departure for the pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj), I received a lot of advice. Experienced pilgrims told me, “It will be a test of your faith.” During an orientation program, our religious leader, the imam, said, “You will be out of your comfort zone.”

That was an understatement. Unlike Ramadan, when your life returns to normal each night, as you indulge in food and drink. On Hajj, there is no return to normal. The pilgrimage is two weeks of discomfort and relentless demands, both physical and mental. I compare it to a long-term illness that must be endured with incalculable patience and perseverance; one day at a time, and with no guarantees that it will heal you.

The Hajj was a prolonged test of leaving my loud, comfortable world and traveling to another loud but distant, foreign world. It was an adventure, where I awoke each day wondering, is this really me? I was challenged to relate to the land and the different people I met; and by the rituals that were beyond my mental comprehension and physical capacity; and, perhaps beyond my faith.

Every religion asks us to abandon comfort and familiar ways. We get up early to pray, we fast, hone our virtues, and purify our inner self, with the hope of achieving Divine union (taqwa). For the faithful, faith is diligence, without assurance; and such was the pilgrimage to Mecca. Like Abraham, we were asked to perform unparalleled tests of faith, without any assurances.

Every day, all that was familiar to me receded further into the past, to insignificance. Inexplicably, the further removed I became from my life, the closer I came to Allah. The one thing I remembered was that a few years ago, I had made a conscious choice to complete this once-in-a-lifetime obligation. But while on the pilgrimage, I had only one motivation in my heart, to help me to put one foot in front of the other, and it was to keep my promise to Allah.

There is no easy explanation, but in many ways, the suffering, the self-discipline, and the separation from my world, made the pilgrimage to Mecca the quintessential contemplative practice. I see now that I had chosen to be in relationship with my Beloved Creator, above all else.  And now, when I recall my pilgrimage, I derive contentment from remembering the magnitude of this relationship in my life.

Finally, no discussion of contemplation in Islam is complete without some mention of Sufism. Steeped in the Islamic tradition, Sufism is a spiritual science that sits at the far end of the contemplative-practice continuum. By means of ‘turning,’ ‘whirling,’ praying, chanting, and fasting, the ascetic Sufis reach the goal of profound union with the Divine. While we eschew suffering and sacrifice in life to pursue the path of contentment, the Sufis accept that the path will be a difficult one.

In the following quote, America’s most beloved 13th century Persian poet and Islamic mystic, Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, describes the path to contentment best:

“Do not imagine that the journey is short; and one must have the heart of a lion to follow the unusual road, for it is very long…. One plods along in a state of amazement, sometimes smiling, sometimes weeping…”

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Immigrants and America

By Mary Lahaj

Everyone has an opinion about immigrants living in America. To keep America great, some insist that immigrants must change immediately, to fit in. Others insist that immigrants should not change, but be free to retain their identity, because Americans value freedom and diversity.

The insistence that refugees change immediately, so that they look and sound like “us” has a long history in this country. I heard a story recently about the residents of a town in Minnesota, complaining about resettled Somali refugees: “Their food is strange, clothing outlandish, religion is violent, and language odd-sounding.”

Some will remember that the Irish were accused of being “unmixable.” And today, this same view of immigrants begs the question: What if “those” people don’t change? What if we are expected to change and become like them? As one resident stated, “We do not want our values or our children’s values to change or be changed by these immigrants.”

As a second generation American-born Muslim woman, whose parents were born here, and grandparents came from Syria at the turn of the 20th Century, I am an expert on change. For more than 100 years of living in America, change has played a critical role in my family’s history. It is an inevitable, imperceptible process, and like the sun, it touches everyone and everything.

It might be helpful to look closely at the relationship between new immigrants and indigenous Americans. For example, when my mother needed help with the housework, she hired a new immigrant from Finland. One day, she observed the young woman ironing. First, she would spit on the clothes, and then press them with the hot iron. Even after explaining that this practice (and a few others) was unacceptable, the young woman continued to do things her way. That was early on in the process of assimilation. But since the young woman would not change, my mother had to let her go. For many immigrants, change is about survival and keeping a job.

Change has also played an important role in America, when it comes to food. I remember asking my grandfather (of the immigrant generation) why our “Syrian” food had changed and became “Lebanese” food? To get a comprehensive explanation, I had to take a history course about the Middle East; another subject for another essay.

Significantly, our American cuisine has undergone the slow process of change. Take some of our favorite foods, such as Chinese, Italian, barbecue, cinnamon, and chili peppers − all brought to us by immigrants, and changing our indigenous taste buds forever. Maybe it’s our hubristic self-regard, but we have taken ownership of these foods, accepted them hungrily into our American family cuisine, and forgotten all the immigrants who gave them to us.

Food changes from the very first day an immigrant arrives. The process continues, as each new American generation tries to recreate the food of its parents. If my grandfather was still alive to taste my baklava, he would ask me why it changed; and that, after only two generations.

As Americans, not only do we have a unique cuisine, we also fashion our own religions. Dr. Diana Eck, founder of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, has pioneered an emerging field that documents the transformation of religions brought to America by immigrants, including the “new” religions of Islam, Hinduism, Jain, Christianity, and Judaism, each being practiced uniquely in America.

Sadly, fear of change has been directed at immigrants, Muslims, people who look like Muslims, and people of color. Blinded by fear, xenophobes have lost faith in our values and strengths. America transforms people, food, and religion and presents unparalleled opportunity for people to actualize their potential. America is not a melting pot that sits on the back burner, waiting to boil down. America is a transforming power.

In my Syrian American Muslim family, my grandparents had to change in order to survive. In the second generation, my parents had to change in order to succeed. Each generation gets to choose what it wants to carry forward in its American life and what it wants to leave behind. As the third generation, I have chosen to practice American Islam. From my family, I also inherited the burning desire to be a good American (a passion that never skips a generation). I passed love of country to my child and demonstrated the value of change.

To me, that torch held by the Statue of Liberty symbolizes the burning desire to be a part of what makes America great. It also represents the eternal faith that immigrants have in America. And by the way, the first Somali (a woman) just won the privilege of representing the state of Minnesota.

The Story of John Omar, Top Turret Gunner & Flight Engineer – Army Air Corps World War II

 John Omar wedding

 By Mary Lahaj and Sheila Omar Malasi

Like other American families, the eight founding families of the Islamic Center of New England in Quincy (the first mosque in New England-1964) sent their sons and daughters to fight in World War II. One came home with the Purple Heart for courage under fire, John Omar.

Before he became well-known as the first religion teacher at the mosque, a crackerjack mechanic, and the owner of Omar’s Garage, located first on Water Street in Quincy, and later, near the Burgin Parkway, John enlisted in the Army Air Corps and served his country from 1943-1945.

At eighteen, after graduating with honors from Quincy High School in 1943, John was the top turret gunner and flight engineer for a B-24 Liberator, dubbed by the crew, “She’s Our Gal.” Assigned to the 8th Air Force, 382nd Bomb Squadron 491st Bomb Group, John and the crew were stationed in Pickingham Air Field in Norfolk, England.

It was early in the war, when the enemy was eager to take down any Allied aircraft, before it could hit its target. But even before they started to fly missions, the crew had a couple of close calls during the training program, including a difficult landing that broke the nose wheel. Another time the hydraulics failed prompting a call from the pilot to “Omar” (the crew’s nickname for him) to manually crank down the landing gear so they could make an emergency landing. The plane landed without the brakes and skidded to within a few feet from the end of the runway.

During the Battle of the Bulge, a heavy snowstorm at the start of one mission caused their plane to crash shortly after takeoff.  Eleven of the 500-pound bombs aboard were jettisoned into a field below.  When the plane hit the ground, the 12th bomb came crashing through the cockpit bulkhead with its nose a few feet from Omar’s back.  Moments after they crashed, Omar heard the pilot screaming for help and was able to help free the pilot from the burning wreckage so that they could both quickly escape from the plane in case of an explosion.

In a mission to Magdeburg Germany, they encountered a heavy barrage of anti-aircraft flak as they were approaching the target. They lost the #3 engine and the rudder cable was severed.  Because the hydraulics system was damaged, they could not open the bomb bay doors to release the bombs.

In response, Omar disconnected his heated flight suit and straddled a 9″ catwalk that ran from the cockpit to the waste door to reach the cranks that opened the bomb bay doors.  In 42 below zero temperatures, clinging precariously to the struts of the catwalk- the only thing between him and the earth below- Omar manually cranked open the doors so the bombs could be released. While performing this task, shrapnel wounded him in his right foot.

Once the bombs were released, he then turned his attention to repairing the severed rudder cables so that the plane could be turned around. With the #3 engine out, the plane kept losing altitude as they were leaving Germany.  A “May Day” call was sent out and someone gave the pilot a heading.  Miraculously they made the landing on a very short runway with no gas showing in the tanks.  The plane’s fuselage had been hit 44 times.  For his courageous actions in that mission, Omar was promoted to Sargent and awarded the Purple Heart. He flew a total of 29 missions, before the war ended.

Many of the young Muslim men in the founding families enlisted, including Sam Hassan (president of the Islamic Center of New England 12 times), his brothers (Ali, Abdu, Moe, and Albert) and sister, Zaida. In the Ameen family, Joey, Michael, and Sam joined up, and two daughters enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), formed in 1943. Jimmy Abraham, Moe Allie, the Derbes, and the Hassan Brothers were among the boys who enlisted in WW II and fought in subsequent wars as well.

Other patriots stayed home. My grandfather, for example, Mohamed Omar, the first Imam of the mosque in Quincy, trained as a welder and helped build warships for Bethlehem Steel at the Fore River Shipyard. Quincy Point, located near the mosque and the Shipyard, is the neighborhood where John Omar and my mother, Mary, grew up. Many in the Muslim community remember John fondly, as a religion teacher in the Quincy mosque, but very few have any knowledge of his heroic war efforts or his Purple Heart.

Meanwhile, John married and raised eight children of his own. Below is John’s wedding picture from 1946.  Almost all eight of the Islamic Center founding family members attended his wedding.

FRONT ROW, LEFT TO RIGHT:  Ramsey Ameen Hassan; Fadal Hassan; Mary Omar Hassan; Bride-Mary Omar; John Omar (groom); and Emma Hassan. BACK ROW, LEFT TO RIGHT:  Sam Hassan; Carl Awad (Navy veteran); Ali Awad (bride’s father); Mohamad Omar (John’s father).