Monday, February 25, 2013

Our lives all intertwine

Reading: My Mother, by David Wharnsby

I saw my mother's photograph, when she was young like me,
a ponytail, fine flowered frock, and plaster on her knee.
She stood smiling with her own mum, who I call my Granny,
and now I think I understand this thing called family.

It means we are all connected, like links that make a chain,
like petals on a flower stem, like streams of pouring rain.
Each link like a ring of love, and each leaf one of a kind,
each raindrop different from the rest, no two alike you'll find.

Our lives all intertwine, as we grow, one from the other,
and so with passing time, maybe I will be a mother.
My mum will become a Granny, as on our family grows,
to the beautiful baby buds, who share the same shaped nose!

Dawud Wharnsby, "A Picnic of Poems," (Markfield, Leicestershire:  The Islamic Foundation, 2011), p. 9.

The poem you just heard is a favorite of my 8-year old daughter, and is a reminder to me that although we are nurtured by family influences, it is ultimately up to me as an individual what to make of my life. Our parents were not perfect human beings, and I am certainly not either, but my hope is that I can draw on the positive from my family experience and learning, to facilitate a good intellectual and moral grounding for our children, and to try to be a good role model for them.

In my family, we were encouraged to aspire high. My paternal grandfather would say about my father's character, that if you let him onto the porch, he'll persist until he's allowed into the house. Although I never met my grandfather, and only heard this through my father, the words ring true with what I have seen and experienced in my father's attitude and behavior, which in turn have left a strong impression on me. He would seize his opportunities, and not be hesitant to keep forging ahead. If something is worth doing, then go all the way; don't hold back. We were six siblings - my father aspired high in terms of numbers too - but this by itself did not necessitate the commercial-size ice-cream tubs I remember him buying for the family. He sought out top-rated schools for us his children; not an easy feat in the semi-apartheid conditions in Southern Africa at the time. He was on personal terms with a number of world leaders. But we were also taught that high achievement should not be through unprincipled, cut-throat competition. An adage my father is fond of repeating is, "Keep accounts to the cent for your debts , but give in charity without counting." Both he and my mother were very social people, and while my own personality is perhaps more reserved, their amiability has left its effect on me in terms of how to deal with and relate to other people. I remember one particular incident, where I was approached by someone handing out free religious literature. I accepted the magazine, without showing any rudeness to the person, but my dad noticed something amiss, and asked me what was going on. I told him that the group distributing the magazine is a kind of personality cult, with some skewed ideas, and hence I was not enthusiastic about the situation. He gently explained that even if that be so, this is not the way to interact with people; be friendly and welcoming, introduce yourself, and ask the person about himself. If he is in error, you need to be able to eventually discuss things with him to help him realize why or how he is wrong. It may have taken some time for this to fully sink in to my consciousness, and then permeate into my behavior, but I remember this incident as a valuable lesson. I remember, too, my father's own openness to interacting with others: other flavors of Muslims, and also non-Muslims, even if disagreed on important things. We would receive a variety of subscription literature at home, including Christian magazines, and my dad once had a priest give us a tour of a church.

An anecdote my father would often tell is about Bakhtiar Kaki, a medieval Muslim mystic from India, who left instructions that his funeral prayer should only be led by someone who had never missed the tahajjud prayer (an optional, but strongly recommended type of prayer that is offered in the small hours of the morning, before dawn). People gathered for Kaki's funeral prayer, and this stipulation was announced. At first there was no response, until eventually a man came forward quietly, his eyes streaming with tears,  and saying, "Alas! Today the secret that was between me and God has been revealed, that I have never missed tahajjud." That man was Iltitmush, a wise, patient and tolerant king who managed to build up the country's infrastructure and withstand the Mongol ravages. My father himself is usually up before dawn, for tahajjud, and often stays up until after sunrise, occupied with prayer, supplication and recitation of Qur'an. His high aspiration in the spiritual domain, along with the anecdote about Kaki, has helped me understand the value of constancy in worship, even though my own spiritual exercise falls far short. I have of course learned a lot from other family members (siblings, wife and others), including patience from a sister who died of cancer in her thirties, and innocence from our children. I cannot end without mentioning my mother, who I always remember as a supportive, calming, moon-like presence in our family.

Both the mother's womb, and the family tie, the Prophet Muhammad taught, are manifestations of God's attribute of rahma (mercy/love), and to be honored. It was my mother who would read stories of the prophets to us in our childhood. Given that the prophets are the ancestors in our religious lineage, as well as the best role-models, I thought it appropriate to end with a reading recognizing these great men of God, and some of the values they brought into our lives.

Reading: from the Qur'an

"They who believe and do not obscure their belief with injustice [or wrong] - those will have security, and they are [rightly] guided. And that was Our [conclusive] argument which We gave Abraham against his people. We raise by degrees whom We will. Indeed, your Lord is Wise and Knowing. And We gave to him [Abraham], Isaac and Jacob - all [of them] We guided. And Noah, We guided before; and among his descendants, David and Solomon and Job and Joseph and Moses and Aaron. Thus do We reward the doers of good. And Zechariah and John and Jesus and Elias - and all were of the righteous. And Ishmael and Elisha and Jonah and Lot - and all [of them] We preferred over the worlds. And [some] among their fathers and their descendants and their brothers - and We chose them and We guided them to a straight path. That is the guidance of God by which He guides whomever He wills of His servants. But if they had associated others with God, then worthless for them would be whatever they were d! oing. Those are the ones to whom We gave the Scripture and authority and prophethood. But if these deny it, then We have entrusted it to a people who are not therein disbelievers. Those are the ones whom God has guided, so from their guidance take an example. Say, 'I ask of you for this message no payment. It is not but a reminder for the worlds.'"
Qur'an, 6:82-91

"They will only be reminded who are people of understanding - Those who fulfill the covenant of God and do not break the contract, And those who join that which God has ordered to be joined and fear their Lord and are afraid of the evil of [their] account, And those who are patient, seeking the countenance of their Lord, and establish prayer and spend from what We have provided for them secretly and publicly and prevent evil with good - those will have the good consequence of [this] home - Gardens of perpetual residence; they will enter them with whoever were righteous among their fathers, their spouses and their descendants. And the angels will enter upon them from every gate, [saying], 'Peace be upon you for what you patiently endured. And excellent is the final home.'"
Qur'an, 13:20-24
Speaker ~ Suheil Laher, Muslim Chaplain