Saturday, June 20, 2015

Why This Ramadan Is Completely Different

Mama reading the Holy Qur'an.
If there was a scale of religiosity varying from not religious, to soft, to hard religous, my family and I would have been right in the middle of soft. Growing up, Islam maintained vast significance in our lives. We were taught the creed at a very young age and told to practice it daily. Mama would not let me sleep at night unless I had read, reviewed, and memorized the last ten surahs, Ayat-ul-Kursi, the six kalimahs, and so on. My father would scold me if he learned I hadn't read the Qur'an.

Yet still, despite our apparent faith, our practice was weak. For most of my childhood and adolescence, Mama and Daddy were not 'religious'. They lived by the principles but they did not completely adhere to the faith. We didn't eat pork, only ate Halal meat, did not swear, were scolded for sin, but we still did not pray five times a day as Islam required. Mama did not wear hijab, and therefore did not inspire her daughters to do so either. We were raised in an Islamic atmosphere more than we were raised Muslim; we feared sin more than we feared Allah.

Things changed when Mama returned from Hajj, her pilgrimage to Mecca, in 2007. Upon her return, she vowed to wear a headscarf, and sought forgiveness in daily repentance and prayer. She was seldom seen without a Qur'an in her hand. She was a completely new person.

And when we moved out of Philadelphia to a small town right outside Coatesville, Pennsylvania, Daddy rekindled his relationship with his Lord as well. One Ramadan morning in 2009, a Muslim neighbor saw us mowing our lawn and she told us about Masjid Ar-Rahman, a mosque downtown where her husband led prayer. She invited us to the mosque that night for iftar.

I'll never forget that night. My father, then unabashed by what now I can objectively diagnose as racism, said to me, sitting among at a predominately African American congregation:  "We can't come to this masjid. This is not a good neighborhood." His tongue committed worse, pointing out a Muslim who had entered the masjid late, after prayer had ended, "Look, these people probably only came to eat the food."

The Muslim he had pointed out that night was Brother Abdul Aleem. We soon learned he was the founder of Masjid Ar-Rahman. He had built the mosque in 2004 by himself, imported the rugs and chandeliers from Egypt while he was ill, bed-ridden, hoping for a kidney donor to save his life.

Abdul Aleem with my father.
Abdul Aleem became my father's best friend. How unlikely a relationship it was, but in the house of God it seemed all things were possible. My father was soon himself diagnosed with kidney cancer, which drew him closer to Allah, closer to Abdul Aleem and the mosque. He, like my mother, sought forgiveness for his sins. And Abdul Aleem helped him do so. He rid my father of the racism that plagued his mind. He softened my father's heart. And together, they became close in their worship of their Lord.

Abdul Aleem passed away just a few days ago. His funeral occurred on the first day of Ramadan, what we Muslims believe to be the holiest month of the year. How fitting - the purest exit from this Earth for one of the holiest men I've ever met.

Many Ramadans have come and gone, but this year is completely different. I share all of this backstory to simply tell one story, and that's the journey of my faith. I did not grow in a strict household. We were Muslim, but we were reckless. I was already a young adult when I finally saw Mama and Daddy practice the Islam they always tried to preach. Their daughters were too far gone.

And today, I find myself in an intense struggle with my faith. Mama is no longer here with us, her journey has ended. My father is barely still here; his words have become so incomprehensible, I can no longer find solace in him when my heart is in despair.

The most significant reason this Ramadan is different - and perhaps most perilous - is that I know a dark shadow has cast upon my stone heart. This heart has been forced to bear years of pain, and as a result I have disguised cold apathy as perseverance. I have forgotten what it feels like to feel. My arid cheeks long for the day they will feel tears again.

I am numb. I am numbed by the loss, by the pain of a father, by the disregard of his daughters, by racial inequities, police brutality, mass shootings, irreligious terror, small coffins. I am numb to it.

And so this Ramadan, I long for my heart to be softened. I beg to be vulnerable again. I pray these fasts to starve my soul until I feel again. Until I find myself on my knees, staring at this world's many ills and finding hope in any panacea I can bring.

This Ramadan is completely different, because like my mother after Hajj, like my father after Abdul Aleem - I seek to be a different man because of it.

"Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of man until man changes what is in himself." (13:11)

Friday, June 19, 2015

Walking By Empty Coffee Cups & Cardboard Signs

I worked on the 12th floor, so naturally, the elevator was going to make plenty of stops on the way down to the lobby as we all left work. That day, it only stopped on the 6th, a floor occupied by one of the largest law firms in Delaware. A man dressed in a well-tailored suit stepped in to the elevator. I followed him out of our building to the parking lot when I saw him being stopped by a distressed woman. It was hard to distinguish her tears from her sweat. She wore a heavily stained t-shirt and a pair of smeared men's shorts. She held a container of strawberries in hand, likely given to her by someone at the farmer's market nearby.

She approached the man in front of me, saying, "Please, just buy me a sandwich."

Her words brought no hesitation in the man's brisk footsteps. He raised his hand and waved her away. Didn't bat an eye. She approached me right after.

"I just need some money to buy a sandwich, please..."

I asked her how much a sandwich costs. She told me probably $5 or $6. As I pulled out my wallet, she sobbed.

"I have cancer." In one quick motion, she pulled down her shorts and revealed herself. "I'm all wet, please I just need to buy some Depend."

My heart paced faster than those man's footsteps. Heavier than his wallet. I opened my wallet and saw that I only had $8 left in cash.

"My mom has that same cancer."

I gave her all I had, and I walked away. I felt helpless -- not because I wasn't able to give the woman more, but because I couldn't stop that man who possibly could have. A man with obvious wealth, yet not a second to spare to use it to help someone in need.

We have a tendency to drive by cardboard signs and walk by empty coffee cups and ignore the humans that hold them. Humans.

My Mama did have that same cancer. And come to think of it, so could the mother of the man who didn't care to spare a second to even listen. So could your mother. So could your grandmother, your sister, your wife, your daughter. No one is immune to calamity.

I was not passing judgement on the man just as I did not pass judgement on the woman. Many will believe I was naive to have given a 'panhandler' money that was probably not used to buy a sandwich. But the question is not of naivety, it's of conscience. The point is not stopping to give money. The point is stopping.

That day, I witnessed a man who could have stopped, who could have felt, who could have cared. But instead, like many of us do every single day, he chose to walk faster, build walls, and chase this world.

I am in no way saying I'm a better person for stopping. I am in every way saying I'm human. And in a world of suffering and pain, our humanity is something we should never sacrifice.