Conver(t)sations | My Journey to Islam | AUDIO

Many thanks to Ayesha & Asma Ahmad and the George Mason University MSA for inviting several Muslim converts including me to speak about our experiences for their Conver(t)sations event in early March.

L-R: Asma Ahmad, Ify Okoye, Lauren Arnold, Tina Shahmohamadi, Danielle Gottes

Audio Highlights

My Journey to Islam: The Mormons helped me become Muslim

Converts need support because without a real understanding of their relationship with God they can easily fall out of Islam even if they have the external Muslim “name” and “look.”

Avoid using the word “kafir” or its plural “kuffar” in the pejorative sense to refer to all non-Muslims. It’s hurtful for us to hear our families, friends, and loved ones denigrated in that manner by other Muslims. I prefer to use people of other faiths or “poofis” as I once heard Imam Johari Abdul Malik say.

Side Note: I cringe like most people when I hear my recorded voice, part of that is a natural shyness and part of that is from being criticized for not sounding “black” enough when I was younger. I can definitely empathize with Jordan Shumate, a high school student rebuked by his teacher for not reading a poem by Langston Hughes in a “blacker” manner.

The topic of race and racism amongst Muslims deserves a talk by itself. Four years ago, during the previous presidential election, I tried to work out some issues relating to being seen as both authentically black and Muslim here and here.

Eid Mubarak! Praying Outside Washington’s FedEx Field

Eid Mubarak to all! Wishing everyone a very happy and blessed day even as we feel the pangs of the Ramadan withdrawal symptoms.

I hope we were all able to utilize the blessed month to its fullest.

(Photos from Eid al-Fitr 2010)

Come Early to Avoid the Queues 

I love the feeling of praying in a joyous sea of humanity, gotta remember the blessings!

Praying outside FedEx field

Brilliant idea to alleviate perennial traffic issues by praying next to a stadium that is used to having tens of thousands every Sunday for football games.

Just a word for those of you thinking of missing this highly encouraged prayer for work or school today, don’t. Go to one of the early prayers and then do what you have to do. I guarantee that it is not from the sunnah of Allah to disappoint his servant who makes an effort to obey him.

I’ve had midterm exams, clinical days in hospital, and mandatory meetings and trainings at work all fall on Eid. But I prioritized the Eid prayer by informing my supervisors and instructors ahead of time and everything worked out beautifully.

I was able to enjoy and celebrate the day and I didn’t lose out on anything in terms of worldly or material benefit.This past week with the DC earthquake and Hurricane Irene I was reminded of what’s important in life, trust me, religion and family rank way above whatever it is you’re going to do today at work or school.

Ramadan in DC | A Simple but Elegant Iftar

Iftar at the home a friend

Iftar at a friend’s home

This past Wednesday, a small group of sisters and I gathered at a friend’s home for iftar, the evening meal at the end of a day of fasting. We had dates and assorted fruit with water and juice.

Quiet moments of reflection, prayer, and contemplation were intertwined with lively conversation. The conversation flowed easily and we spoke about work, current events, exercise, fencing, the beauty of having an Islamic perspective, and long-kept momentos from our youth.

Afghan restaurant for dinner

We prayed and then went out to eat at a local Afghan restaurant. Our server, a young woman of Afghan descent mentioned she felt faint as she took our orders because she had yet to open her fast for the day. She said they had been very busy that night. We offered her a chair and our own water but she declined and said she would break her fast after putting in our orders.

I’m always stunned by reminders of how much effort we put into working in this life and how much we neglect to put in the same effort or more towards working for the hereafter.

Our host for the night, surreptitiously got up towards the end of our meal to use the restroom or so I thought. When it was time to go, we asked for the bill but to our surprise it had already been paid. When you’re eating out with Muslims and someone drifts away from the group, it’s probably because they’re about to pay the bill and don’t want you to find out.

I love the friendly competition to pick up the tab for meals amongst my Muslim friends. It’s been elevated to a kind of art form, the ability to steal away and pay the bill before anyone notices.

Tarawih

We ended the night praying tarawih led by Sh. Adam at the Westin Hotel in Tysons Corner. Continue reading “Ramadan in DC | A Simple but Elegant Iftar”

Ingrid Mattson | The Importance of Community in Islam

This an oldie but goodie, which I first posted in back in 2006 but with GoogleVideo now defunct, I re-uploaded the video via YouTube.

You might also be interested to read Dr. Ingrid Mattson – Words of Wisdom, which includes two short lectures and a pdf of her Heaven’s Gate: How Muslim Women Open or Close Doors for Their Sisters lecture.

I’m heading out tonight to break my fast at a local mosque iftar, my first in several years. I used to love having iftar at the mosque but gave it up to have simpler and more familiar meals at home. I’m hoping that I will find a welcoming community. I’ll report what I find for my Ramadan in DC series, God willing.

Ramadan at the Airport | Muslims at Their Best

When I worked at BWI airport, my shifts often began in the early morning, before the time for fajr prayer. Throughout most of the year, I would pray tahajjud (night prayer) after I arrived at the airport at one of the empty and carpeted gates.

For the early morning fajr prayer, I would retreat to the airport meditation room, one of the few places where the ubiquitous announcements in English and Spanish, “Attention all passengers. Please do not leave any items or baggage unattended. Unattended items will be removed by security…,” were muted. I always prayed alone.

But in Ramadan, the meditation room came alive with many of the Muslims who worked throughout the airport at the Hudson News newsstands, restaurants, for the airlines, taxi and limo drivers, and for TSA. I remember one day, I stayed late working overtime, and at sunset I went to the meditation room to break my fast and pray.

A Muslim woman, who appeared to be of Ethiopian descent, was sitting on the floor eating some food. She didn’t wear hijab so I didn’t know if she was Muslim but she offered me the salams, a warm smile, and her apple. I only had a few dates, which I belatedly offered to her. Her warmth and simple but profound act of generosity still makes my eyes moist. May Allah reward her with an abundance of good. We should never belittle any act, I was still a relatively new Muslim at that time, and her kindness towards me helped strengthen me in my faith.

I loved the experience of praying fajr in the meditation room during Ramadan because the Muslims took over, not that there were really too many others there in those early hours before the airport opened. We’d rearrange the chairs and pray, both men and women, in congregation sometimes as many as ten of us. The feeling and sense of community, absent during much of the year was palpable.

Last year during Ramadan, I had to pick up a friend from BWI airport around time for breaking the fast. As I waited by the checked baggage area, Muslims who worked at the airport kept coming up to me to tell me that a group of them were gathering on the upper level by the large crab sculpture to pray and break their fast together and that I was welcome to join and share the food with them.

These were given to me by a Muslim limo driver at the airport to break my fast

I saw a couple of Muslim limo drivers holding white name card signs waiting for their passengers to arrive. One of these drivers bought me some cookies and a bottle of lemonade from the newsstand to use to break my fast. Again, belatedly, I brought out my dates from my purse to offer to the drivers.

Over the years, I’ve met many Muslims working in the local DC regional airports always ready to help me find the chapel or meditation room and share their food or prayer mat with me. I didn’t always know their names and we didn’t always exchange salams or speak but God knows their names. I pray they will be rewarded for showing me the love and character of a Muslim, magnified by their generosity in the month of Ramadan.

Ramadan Reflection | I Cannot Read the Quran

‘Aa’ishah (may Allah be pleased with her) relates that the Prophet صلى الله عليه و سلم said:

Indeed, the one who recites the Qur’an beautifully, smoothly, and precisely, he will be in the company of the noble and obedient angels. And as for the one who recites with difficulty, stammering or stumbling through its verses, then he will have TWICE that reward.” [Al-Bukhari and Muslim]

When I became Muslim, I typed and printed up my own salah manual. I included the transliteration and the meaning in English underneath. A simple two rakat of fajr might take me half an hour reading and fumbling through, trying hard to remember and not make any mistakes. Now with practice, the time is shorter but I’m not sure the baraka is greater. May Allah increase us in our steadfastness and khushu, ameen.

My first experience with the Quran was through reading English translations then through transliteration, and eventually through reading the Arabic script. While on a trip to New York, I purchased my first Arabic Quran. It was a red-letter version with each mention of Allah’s name or variation of it highlighted in red.

I carried that Quran back with me on the flight home. Once settled in my seat, I opened the mushaf and began “reading” as I flipped through the pages even though the only word I could identify was the word “Allah,” highlighted in red.  I was so happy to be able to read or rather recognize that one word.

My very first Quran was a red-letter version

When Jibreel recited the first revelation to the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam), “Read,” the Prophet (s) said, I cannot read. The Prophet (s) persisted and did not give up and neither should we if we struggle to read or recite the Quran fluently.

Once, I was in a Quran class and we were trying to come up with a set amount of Quran to read each day. So our teacher asked us how long it took us to read one page of Quran and I said, “half an hour.” She looked at me incredulously and said, “half an hour, thirty minutes, why?”

I can read what I’ve memorized very quickly. I can probably read all of Juz Amma in less than 30 minutes. But for sections of Quran that I’m unfamiliar with, I read the Arabic, verse by verse, trying to implement the rules of tajwid to the best of my ability. After each verse, I turn to my Dr. Muhammad Mohar Ali word-for-word translation so that I can learn the meaning and improve my vocab and then I might re-read the verse or spend some time reflecting on it. So after one blessed hour, I might have only made it through two pages, somewhat exhausted by the effort.

When we struggle to read the book of Allah or perfect our tajwid or get up for our after-fajr tajwid classes at Ilm Summit or be patient with our Quran teachers, let’s remember the great reward promised to us for that struggle.

If you feel shy or embarrassed by your reading or memorization skills, use that emotion to your advantage along with the hadith mentioned above to motivate yourself to learn, ask for help, and read more even if it’s only one verse a day. It will get easier.

Tips: 

Make dua that Allah will open a way for you to understand his words.

Be consistent. Read each day, even if it’s only one line or one verse.

Be humble and open to learning and correction. We don’t like to admit to our own ignorance or weakness. In order to grow and reach new heights, we have to admit we’re at a state below where we want to be.

Know what you’re reciting, reading with understanding will humble you as you apply the verses to your own life.

Get a teacher and recite to them, anyone who knows a bit more Quran or tajwid can help you.

Car Trouble Amidst The Poor Man’s Book of Assistance

Years ago, soon after my conversion to Islam, I attended my first and perhaps only MSA East Zone Conference in Rochester, NY. I had not yet integrated into the Muslim community and being amongst so many other Muslims was a revelation, comforting, and fun. While shopping in the bazaar, I purchased some lectures including Hamza Yusuf’s 16 CD translation and commentary of the ninth century Moroccan scholar Sidi Ahmed Zarruq’s penetrating work The Poor Man’s Book of Assistance.

My much-loved and worn copy

I’ve listened to the complete set at least 3-4 times, maybe more, and the CD case is beginning to show the wear and tear. The top half of the CD case has completely separated from the rest of the case. A few weeks ago, I started re-listening to the CD set while commuting back and forth to work and school. Sidi Ahmed Zarruq’s keen insight into the reality of the human condition allowed him to tailor his book into practical advice and steps for anyone seeking nearness to God and to improve one’s own spiritual condition. I’ve resolved to listen to the set again, while not driving, so that I can take notes on it.

Last year I purchased a used car, and on one of my first trips after the sale, I went to a fundraising dinner for a local Muslim newspaper. That night, while driving home on the highway, my car began to lose power. I was just barely able to cruise towards and reach my exit. And as I reached the end of the exit ramp, my car died at a red light. Thankfully, a lot of other Muslims live in the area and were also on their way home from the dinner so there was no shortage of offers of help and assistance. It was a little embarrassing but the warm expressions of support were deeply appreciated. We tried to jumpstart my car but it wouldn’t start. Turned out to be a problem with the alternator.

My car being towed after the Muslim Link dinner.

A couple of police cars showed up because my car and the cars of the Muslims who stopped to help me were blocking the left turn lane of the exit ramp. The police wanted us to move the cars but of course my car wouldn’t budge. And just then, a tow truck driver on his way to a different job pulled up in the lane beside me and asked if I needed a tow. I said, “Yes,” and within a few minutes, he hooked up my car and towed it to a gas station near my home. Everything worked out perfectly, I was humbled and thankful for what I saw as providential care and for the social support of my local Muslim community. Throughout, the situation I felt a sense of calm and inner peace, which I attribute to being focused on the larger picture of this life.

Know that the life of this world is but amusement and diversion and adornment and boasting to one another and competition in increase of wealth and children – like the example of a rain whose [resulting] plant growth pleases the tillers; then it dries and you see it turned yellow; then it becomes [scattered] debris. And in the Hereafter is severe punishment and forgiveness from Allah and approval. And what is the worldly life except the enjoyment of delusion. [Al-Hadid 57.20]

When we get angry or argumentative or bogged down in the stressors of life, we’ve lost sight of the bigger picture. Life’s too precious and too short to waste on matters that bring no benefit. The only real and lasting joys are in knowing God and in the higher purpose of life to worship him through our actions. Everything else is so fleeting and won’t benefit us in the hereafter. And besides, if you believe in the divine decree, then you know that’s what God has written for you.

Coming up on my car parked on the shoulder

Recently, my car has needed quite a bit of work. I had to fix the heater, the left turn signal and tag lights had an electrical wiring issue, changed the brake pads and rotor, and got an oil change. The tread on my left front tire is worryingly worn and needs to be replaced, and I’ve been working with the mechanic who sold me the car to repair my air conditioner.

Tonight, on my way to work, I experienced a bit of déjà vu, as my car once again began to lose power on the highway and eventually ground to a halt. Mercifully, this time, on the shoulder of the highway. Not sure why, will have the car towed in the morning, insha’Allah. But as I waited for a friend to arrive to pick me up, I finished listening to the last of the sixteen CDs in The Poor Man’s Book of Assistance set. Once again, I felt an inner sense of calm and peace and was thankful reflecting on the many blessings in my life.

Among the greatest gifts I’ve received in my life is the gift of Islam and with that an understanding of who Allah is and who the Messenger of Allah is and of the book and guidance found within this religion. Without that, I’d be lost and something small like my car stopping on the road would throw me for a loop. We’re not perfect, we make mistakes, and this life is a journey through constant taubah (repentance) and istiqama (firm uprightness).