Friday, November 9, 2012

Shadia: Thank you, readers, for the best year of my life

When John Canalis, editor of Los Angeles Times Community News in Orange County, told me that a column about my life as a Muslim American would make a good read and help people dispel misconceptions about Muslims and Islam, I thought, "Me? No way."

When I was 9 years old and still living in Cairo, I decided I wanted to be a reporter. My decision was influenced by my mother, Shadia, who didn't finish high school but read the newspaper daily. It was also influenced by my Uncle Beautiful, who would watch nothing but news on television and sit in our living room every Friday with my mom and other uncles, talking about the issues of the day.

That, along with my innate sense of curiosity, and the belief that journalism is an honorable cause of which the Prophet Muhammad would approve, convinced me that I should live my life informing people, holding politicians and powerful people accountable (some of them know exactly what I mean), and giving a voice to those who can't be heard.

It wasn't easy becoming a reporter, especially when I moved to the United States with no English skills 14 years ago, but becoming one has been my pride and joy.

So when John suggested the column, I thought, "I'm an objective, straightforward reporter at heart."

Besides, I always felt that columnists had to spend most of their lives working hard as reporters before stepping into the world of column-writing.

Maybe I would do that someday, but now wasn't the time, I thought.

Almost a year after John's initial mention of the column, I went to his office asking for a challenge. He brought up the column idea again and told me to think about it.

It was a Friday when we talked, and when Monday had arrived, I knew I had to write "Unveiled."

What was I thinking, brushing off the opportunity to show Americans that we Muslims are Americans too, and that we are just like everyone else? We have families, jobs and challenges. We struggle, dream, succeed and fail. And, oh, if you're Christian or Jewish, then we worship the same God, too.

It'll be a year in December since I started writing Unveiled, and I would be a liar if I said that it hasn't been the most wonderful time of my life.

I wasn't sure I could pull it off at first, but I have grown with it and have become more versed in — and much more connected to — my religion through writing about it.

John is a visionary. He saw this and believed in me even before I believed it myself. And that's the definition of a great editor. (I'm not kissing up. I don't do that.)

But being a reporter has been my first and foremost priority, and I still have a long reporting career ahead of me. If I work really hard at it, I know I will reach my goals.

And so when the Orange County Register offered me a reporting job in South County, I was thrilled, but torn.

What would become of the column, which I love and truly believe in? Besides, there's still so much to tell you. I haven't even had the chance to tell you about my adventures at South Coast Plaza, which is the true happiest place on Earth, or why I changed my last name to my mom's first name, or that according to the Koran, it wasn't really Eve's fault that we're on Earth.

I decided I can still do both. I can work hard as a reporter, and, by the time you read this, I'll be working at the Register. I can write my column too, maybe not as often, for my blog, which you can find and bookmark at

But if you choose not to follow my columns or my blog, I hope that my writing for the last year has helped you learn a little bit about the world of Muslims and Islam, and I hope it has spread tolerance and built bridges of common understanding and interfaith.

And I ask that when you hear the words "Muslim" or "Islam," you not let the first thing that comes to your mind be war, terrorism, anger, hate or oppressed women. But I ask that you remember me.

Remember that I'm your fellow American, that I do my best to lead an honest and straightforward life, that I struggle and have struggled in life, that I work hard, that I dream, love, laugh and cry, and that I, too, believe in God.

And remember that I'm not alone in this. Each and every Muslim I know is very much like me.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Shadia: Tip-top shape is a must for Islam's boot camp

One of Islam's five pillars is Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.

We also call it boot camp.

Islam's boot camp, which happened this week, is so challenging and rigorous that it would scare the toughest fitness instructor out there.

Yet an estimated 2 million to 6 million people from around the world are eager to be there each year, and millions more save up their entire lives to fulfill it.

I say Hajj is boot camp because you don't just need to be prepared physically for the minimum-two-week journey. You need to be mentally and spiritually prepared. Like praying five times a day to stay connected to God and fasting during Ramadan to recharge your spirituality, Hajj is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to seek forgiveness and start anew with God.

You also must summon the patience and kindness in the world to deal with the humongous crowd, with being in a foreign country and culture, and all that comes with it.

It's not cheap, either. The average cost from the U.S. is about $6,000, and many can't afford that kind of money, especially people from poor nations.

In fact, boot camp comes with the condition that you are physically and financially able to make it.

My mom, Shadia, who is 49, did her boot camp in 2009.

Aside from arthritis, which runs in our family, I would say my mom is pretty healthy. Although I was so happy for her, I was deeply worried when she was over there, not only because I know it's a difficult journey for the healthiest of people, but because she's my mom and I wasn't with her, and I wanted to make sure she was going to be safe every single second she's was there.

When my mom returned, she recounted her experience, and while she loved it and described it as overall spiritually fulfilling and positive, she said that it was so difficult at times that there were days when she could no longer walk. She herself doesn't even know how she made it through. My mom said there were times when she would pray to God so hard to give her strength to take the next step and to help her fulfill her duties. (She made it through by the grace of God, she always says.)

It sounds so grueling and so trying, yet since she's been back, she can't stop thinking about going back.

You may hear about an accident here or there, but considering how many people gather in Mecca, and the lack of properly trained police officers and security personnel, most of whom are foreign to Mecca because they are gathered from around the country during boot camp season, it's relatively a peaceful and successful event that has been taking place annually for more than 1,400 years.

People are on their best behavior.

And beside America, there's one other place I could easily point to as a bowl of salad, if not quite a melting pot. It's Mecca. But only during boot camp season.

While there, your gender, looks, body type, wealth, skin color, social status, citizenship, house and car don't matter. What matters is who you are on the inside. What matters is your connection to God and the opportunity to be reborn.

During boot camp, Muslims relive the journey Hagar took to Mecca with her son, Ishmael. They walk in the footsteps of the Prophet Abraham, who we believe built the house of God, the Kaaba. They walk in the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad.

It's humbling that even those who have never been there, including me, are in such awe of its greatness.

Boot camp ends with the daylong stand on Mt. Arafat. Muslims around the world join the boot campers by fasting from sunrise to sunset, which is taking place Thursday.

The Prophet gave his farewell sermon on Mt. Arafat during Hajj. About 100,000 Muslims were in attendance. Some of his most famous words of wisdom were given during that sermon, including: Be good to your women. A white man is not better than a black man, and a black man is not better than a white man. An Arab is not better than a non-Arab, and a non-Arab is not better than an Arab. Nothing matters but your deeds.

Then we celebrate the day after. That happened Friday.

Muslims sacrifice a sheep or another animal and distribute the meat to those in need in their respective communities. The sacrifice of the sheep commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, at God's command.

Someday, I hope to make it to boot camp. I sure hope God gives me patience to get through it, because God knows I kind of have none.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Shadia: Let's not empower extremists

When I heard about the shooting of 14-year-old Pakistani Malala Yousafzai by a coward, who must think he's a real man to shoot a teenage girl while on a school bus simply because she wants an education, I felt sick.

I might sound like a broken record when I tell you over and over that Islam does not support this behavior.

When I tell you that in fact, Islam liberated women and liberates women from being subjected and used by men.

When I tell you that the Prophet Muhammad fought to stop the practice of burying newborn girls by men who believed women brought shame to families in Arabia during the pre-Islamic era. In fact, there are verses in the Koran recounting these events and prohibiting it for the believers.

When I tell you that the Prophet dedicated portions of his sermons to women, that the Koran has a chapter literally called "The Women."

When I tell you that there's a chapter in the Koran dedicated to Mary, who is considered the most important woman in Islam.

When I tell you that when God addresses the believers in the Koran, he's addressing both men and women equally, unless specified otherwise.

When I tell you that Islam empowers women through calling for their education, rights and place in society.

When I tell you that the Prophet's first wife, Khadija, paid him a salary because he worked for her.

When I tell you that his second wife, Aisha, used to hold classes to teach men, among them the Prophet's own companions, on family life under Islam.

When I tell you that women, in early Islam, enlisted in the military.

But these are just the facts.

How can a person who claims to be a Muslim justify what he did if he knew these facts about the religion?

If he and the group he belongs to, which admitted to shooting Malala and announced plans to end her life if she survives, understood just a portion of what Islam is really about, the thought of stopping women from being educated — the thought of hurting a human being, let alone a little girl — wouldn't cross his mind.

But what is troubling me is much bigger than this latest incident.

It's that the minute the Taliban or some kind of psychotic individual or group calling themselves Muslim commits atrocities, so many people around the world automatically assume that they're carrying on the teachings and mission of Islam and include the 1.6 billion of us in the same circle.

Those who say Islam is the source of these individuals' action don't realize that in doing so, they empower the criminals.

And those who expect Muslims to apologize for those psychos' behaviors put us in a corner and weaken us.

Let's see if I can provide you with a clear analogy: Say you're a devout Christian and one day you're reading the newspaper about some KKK member or skinhead who lynched an African American. Now, the KKK and its members claim to be Christians who are carrying out the will of Jesus. But are they?

Well, how hurt would you be if the next day, you and your religion are being defined by the KKK's actions or by the abortion clinic bomber, who too believes he's carrying out the will of God? What if you're expected to apologize each time one of them decides to go postal?

Does it say anywhere in the Bible that black people should be lynched or that it's OK to bomb the clinics and kill the doctors who perform abortions?

I haven't seen that.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Shadia: Support the civilized ads

My name is Mona Shadia, and I am a savage — according to Pamela Geller, that is.

The ever-so-intellectually-challenged Geller, a blogger and the executive director of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, has been running an ad in New York and San Francisco subway stations, basically concluding that Muslims (and Palestinians) are savages.

Her message reads: "In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel — Defeat Jihad."

Let me tell you a little bit about this savage: I'm a 29-year-old who lives in the heart of Orange County.

I earn my living working (kinda) hard as a reporter all week, and by the weekend, my brain is usually fried.

I practice Bikram yoga. I'm a hopeless romantic who loves music and sings and dances for fun. I drive a Toyota Corolla that has more than 200,000 miles on it. (It's the life of a reporter.)

I went to college and have student loans.

I love my mom, family members and friends very much. We have two birds named Nefertiti and King Tut.

I party with my friends when I can, and after paying all my bills, it is always my goal to spend any extra money I have shopping.

In a few words, my friends would describe me as kind, just, loyal, tough, honest and good-hearted. They would also say I'm funny and a bit too girlie at times.

But you know, I'm also a practicing Muslim and an Arab, so that must make me a savage.

I can't help but find Geller's ad and word choices strikingly similar to other terms and tactics that for decades worked to dehumanize African Americans, leading to, dare I say, savage-like treatments of those people because of their skin color.

And what do you expect of an average person, who might not think for themselves, or even those who do think for themselves, to believe about Muslims when they see and read these ads and this type of rhetoric over and over again?

And is this not but one example of how, over the decades, human beings like the Palestinians, South Africans, Jews, Native Americans and many more have been dehumanized to make it easier to mistreat and misrepresent them?

Yes, of course it's Geller's right and freedom to run the ad. I wouldn't have it any other way. She did, after all, have to file a lawsuit to force the subway system in New York to run her ad.

But there are always consequences to this kind of attitude and behavior.

And a responsible, good citizen would practice reason — the very thing that distinguishes us humans from, again, savages.

The ad has been running for a few weeks now, but this week and last, a group of Christians and Jews countered the ad with a message of peace and love toward Muslims.

According to the New York Times, Rabbis for Human Rights — North America, an organization made up of hundreds of rabbis; Sojourners, which is run by Jim Wallis, a Christian author and activist; and the United Methodist Women are running ads next to Geller's in New York subway stations.

The Jewish group's ad reads: "In the choice between love and hate, choose love. Help stop bigotry against our Muslim neighbors."

The Sojourners' ad reads: "Love your Muslim neighbors."

The United Methodist Women ad reads: "Hate speech is not civilized. Support peace in word and deed."

It's not like they need it from me, but I'm overcome with gratitude by these groups' efforts and courage.

I especially love the United Methodist Women's ad, not only because they're women and I'm empowered every time I encounter strong women making a difference in our lives, but because these few words strike a chord in my heart.

In Islam, a person's deeds are the most important part in God's eyes.

God does not look at your wealth, beauty or possessions when making decisions. It's always your deeds that matter.

And so, when you encounter hateful and demeaning words describing Jews, Christians, Muslims, blacks, whites or anyone in between because of who they are, remember they too have a heart. They too live, feel, sing, dance, love, cry, laugh and die.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Shadia: Faith is stronger than a film

It is fair to say that last week I was in utter agony, lamenting the hot mess in the Middle East.

You must've thought: This girl is so quick to tell us how peaceful and loving her religion is, but yet the minute we're about to prove her wrong, she disappears.

Part of me hoped I didn't have to write about the violence following a short film ridiculing my Prophet becuase I didn't want to give more attention to those who committed violence in the name of religion.

But how can I waste this opportunity to talk about world events?

I called Imam Yassir Fazaga, the religious leader of the Orange County Islamic Foundation in Mission Viejo, and said, Imam Yassir, WWMD?

I wasn't asking about weapons of mass destruction. I just wanted to know: What would Muhammad do?

He reminded me of a popular story in Islam. People in Mecca would often wait for the Prophet to prostrate while praying so that they could cover him with trash and laugh. They humiliated and bullied him, attempting to destroy his reputation and break his spirit.

And what would the Prophet do? He got up, shook off the trash and moved on, Fazaga said.

The Koran mentions that detractors will characterize the Prophet as a crazed madman, Fazaga said, and Islam's opponents did just that last week.

Fazaga explained that followers of Muhammad should not take the bait and should not engage with his detractors.

But that's exactly what happened last week, among a small minority.

"The Muslims took the bait," Fazaga said. "The insult that was done by the followers of Muhammad was more harmful than the insult that was done by this movie."

It's important to note that the majority of Muslims condemns the violent reaction to the film. In Cairo, about 2,000 people took to the streets to protest the movie.

Cairo's population is about 20 million. Do the math.

When the protests began, my community members and leaders united to condemn those whom they described as "fools," those who dragged down Islam. The fools are not those who made the movie; the fools are the ones who took to the streets and to the embassies, reacting violently in the name of — get this — "defending the Prophet."

If they really wanted to defend the Prophet, they'd do something about the famine and disease killing children every day. And what about the killing of the innocents in Syria? Isn't that more offensive?

"Some people are willing to die for God, but are not willing to live by the commandments of God," Fazaga said.

I wanted to share this story with you to make one last point. Ten years after he began preaching Islam, the Prophet decided to visit the city of Ta'if, but he was ridiculed, humiliated, run out and belted with stones. He left with his legs soaked in blood.

And then the angel of mountains appeared before him, ready to destroy the people between the mountains at his command. But the Prophet refused, saying instead that his wish was for his detractors to one day embrace Islam.

What strength.

What faith.

This is the Prophet I know, the Prophet whom fools can and will never understand.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Shadia: The wine cork is still in the bottle

I'm a hypocrite.

I'm a Muslim who drinks alcohol — except during the month of Ramadan, of course.

There. I said it. I am a hypocrite.

Alcohol is forbidden in Islam.

There are those Muslims, however, including me, who argue that alcohol is not really a big deal, and as long as you don't get drunk, drink before praying or become dependent, it's fine to imbibe in moderation.

But I can't get away with that. The problem here is I can read. I can reason.

And based on all of those readings, the history of alcohol during the Prophet Muhammad's life and verses in the Koran, alcohol is not allowed (and that's just not cool).

Alcohol was not immediately prohibited. When Islam was first revealed in Mecca, everyone, including the few who accepted it from the beginning, drank. It is said that there were more than 40 Arabic words for wine. Alcohol was gradually eliminated during the life of the Prophet.

In fact, forbidding alcohol all at once would have been against Islam's philosophy. You just can't tell a bunch of people to quit everything they do and revamp their lifestyle all at once.

Alcohol was first prohibited during prayer. Some early Muslims prayed while drunk until a verse came down prohibiting the practice.

Then, as time passed, as people became versed in the philosophy and teaching of Islam, alcohol was forbidden altogether. The faithful accepted it.

When I say forbidden, I mean Islam also forbids Muslims from selling alcohol, buying it or benefiting financially from it.

Even though, according to the Koran, God notes that there are some benefits to alcohol, its negatives far outweigh them, because alcohol, like gambling, is viewed as a vice.

I had my first drink at 17. I was already attending college at the time, and one day, I went to a party and there it was. I knew I wasn't supposed to drink, but I was curious and wanted to try it. It tasted so bad.

Until I moved to the United States from Cairo about two years before then, I don't recall ever seeing alcohol, a person drinking or a drunk person, unless it was on television or in the movies.

Though my very first experience with alcohol wasn't all that great, over the years, I've grown to enjoy drinking and learned to be selective.

I've grown accustomed to drinking when I'm out with friends or when I am at a nice dinner. Even at home after a long day at work, I enjoy a glass of red wine.

It has become a part of my lifestyle. My drinking is, without a doubt, social and responsible. I don't get drunk, I don't drink and drive, and I don't sit on the couch and cry with a bottle of wine in hand (I just cry. I don't need alcohol for that).

I've even created my own system around drinking. Because I pray five times a day, I usually have my glass of wine after the last prayer. There were many times when I would be at home, ready to pour myself a glass of wine and would wait until I was done with the last prayer.

But even then, even as much as I have justified it, there has always been this voice in the back of my mind, a feeling in my heart, especially since I started practicing Bikram yoga. The voice is telling me that it's just not right and that it's not good for my body, mind or, above all, my faith.

That voice has recently become louder. (I wish I could just zip it!)

When Ramadan began this July, I, as usual, stopped drinking, but there were a few days at the beginning when I was missing my favorite kind of red wine.

I didn't cave. (I might be a hypocrite, but I'm not weak.)

Even though Ramadan has passed, I still haven't had a drink — yet.

Not even a sip, even though I've carried on with my lifestyle as usual, hanging out with friends, having dinners, going to work (and shopping too, of course).

It's been 25 days since the end of Ramadan, in case anybody is counting.

But wait. Don't hold your breath.

I stopped by the grocery store one night right after Ramadan to pick up a few things. I found myself going toward the wine aisle. I stood there, looking at my favorite bottle of wine for a few seconds, contemplating whether to buy it.

Then I walked away.

But I walked back to it, looked at it, then decided: enough!

I bought it. But I haven't opened it.

Not yet.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Shadia: 9/11 leads to rediscovery of faith

Do you know the feeling when you have a parent or relative that you keep at a distance for one reason or another, but then they become severely ill, and you can't help but forget all your differences and stand beside them?

And through it all, you rediscover their true nature and you laugh at, even regret, what kept you apart?

I do.

That parent I kept at a far distance was my religion, Islam.

And then 9/11 happened.

I had only been in the United States for three years that month, and although I still identified as a Muslim, it's fair to say that it was my most distant — and troubled — time with my religion.

And to be honest, being Middle Eastern or Muslim in America didn't matter much before 9/11.

I was standing in our living room, about to head out to Crafton Hills College, when I spotted on television the attacks on the Twin Towers, the smoke and the chaos in New York. Those initial images remain vivid in my mind to this day.

I didn't immediately understand what was going on, but I felt very troubled and secretly hoped "Muslims" or Middle Easterners weren't responsible.

I held onto that hope on my way to school, but it wasn't long before I had to face the facts.

And suddenly, I felt as though I had to make a choice: Stand beside my religion or dissociate myself completely.

I obviously chose the former. Though it wasn't the easier choice, my innate sense of curiosity and the responsibility I felt as a human being to stand for justice — in itself a basic Islamic principle — wouldn't have allowed otherwise.

9/11 tumbled the already shaken grounds beneath me.

It also led me to a lot of questions.

Was the source of all my principles flawed? Does Islam really encourage violence, and if it does, why was I taught otherwise and, even more critical, why did I feel differently?

Was I that naive?

Being forced into choices can bring up a lot of hidden insecurities. But unfortunately, sometimes it takes crises to bring about a change.

I wasn't exactly the most qualified to answer specific questions about my religion.

All I had were my principles — the very ones Islam taught me. All I had was my story.

For a while, I would feel very offended and deeply hurt by those who would attack Islam and Muslims for the acts of terrorists.

And apologizing for a bunch of criminals was out of the question.

What and who would I be apologizing for?

It's not like those pathetic losers were my family members or friends. And, by all accounts, we obviously didn't share the same principles.

I began looking for answers. It was a journey that led me to rediscover Islam. It has solidified the grounds on which I stand and it continues to crystallize them.

I can understand those who might find this offensive. "9/11 made her a better Muslim?!"

But you see, for me, my country and people weren't just senselessly attacked by a bunch of criminals on 9/11.

That's just the half of it.

The other half was that my religion — my entire core and belief system — was hijacked, left exposed to be picked apart, twisted and turned by anyone who felt like it, and by those who called themselves "experts" on Islam.

Turning a negative into a positive isn't so bad.

I didn't just turn a negative into a positive here. I essentially accomplished the exact opposite of those terrorists' aim.

I bet you they'd be nauseated with the dignified and intellectual Islam I so proudly possess.

I bet you they didn't expect me, and certainly thousands of others like me, to rediscover Islam for myself and to unabashedly prove them wrong every single day.

I bet you they didn't expect me, or thousands of others like me, to define Islam in America and become the Muslim Americans that we are today.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Monday, September 3, 2012

We have more in common than you might think

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Shadia: Dishing over questions of faith

One of the reasons I enjoy a happy and fulfilling life is because of the people in it.

They are a people who fear God, lead by example and strive, in their own way, for a better world.

And last week, I was reminded once more how lucky I am when a few of them gathered for a Ramadan iftar/dinner at my home.

My mom, Shadia, who is an excellent cook (I say this with total objectivity), prepared our food, and among her creations was one of Egypt's most popular dishes: kushary.

If you haven't had kushary, which is a combination of rice, lentils, two different kinds of pasta, tomato sauce, caramelized onions and garbanzo beans, you need to finish reading this column first, then go find a place that serves kushary (but only my mom's is the most excellent).

I made baklava because I make the best baklava (there's some bias here).

While everyone enjoyed my mom's food, it was the gathering that made it so special for me.

My home was full of friends from all walks of life. They included Muslims, Christians and Jews, and everyone, even the Jews, got out safely.

This was not the first time I have held this dinner. I do it every year and have done it for the past five years or so and always look forward to it.

What made the gathering especially enjoyable for me was the end-of-night conversation some of my Muslim and Jewish friends engaged in.

Meesh and I often discuss the concept of believing in one God, what the Koran — the last of the three monotheistic religions — says about Christians and Jews, how we reconcile and navigate our differences, and what it all means at the end.

There's a great deal of joy that comes from our conversations, and because we're not experts in the field, we end up with questions. A lot of them. Sometimes the questions are important, and sometimes they are not.

So when we, especially me, get our hands on someone with knowledge of the three monotheistic religions, we unload our questions and demand intelligent answers.

Hussam Ayloush is usually the lucky one, and he was this time as well.

Hussam, the executive director of the Greater Los Angeles Area chapter of theCouncil on American-Islamic Relations, is blessed with abundant knowledge on Islam and also the teachings of Judaism and Christianity.

We started with some easy questions: If a child is born to a Muslim father, does that fact automatically make them Muslim? (You know who I'm talking about, don't you? Mmm-hmm.)

We had other questions involving technical and tedious theological matters, like what constitutes a Muslim, spiritually, theologically or both.

We talked about the Torah, the Bible, the Koran and our prophets, including Abraham and Moses. We talked about Jesus as well. We talked about St. Paul's trip from Jerusalem to Damascus and his vision of Jesus and the letters he wrote about it.

And throughout our conversation, there was a common theme: our common roots and belief in one God, all the while my friend's 2-year-old daughter was walking around with some high heels she found laying around.

None of us became angry with one another, nor began fighting like it is depicted sometimes on television. Instead, we shared good food, joked a lot and laughed so much, I was overjoyed.

I thought to myself: This is what it's all about, people. And that's really how the Middle Easterners do it, in my world.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Shadia: Pursuing the 'night of power'

Something's been keeping me up at night.

I haven't had much beauty sleep in the last eight nights, and I'm not due for much more until the end of Ramadan, which is — sadly — on Saturday.

I've been up in search of "Laylat ul-Qadr," the night of power.

It lasts only for a few hours, from sunset to sunrise, but its significance and possibilities are so great that I cannot risk missing it.

It is a night tantamount to 1,000 months of contiguous worship.

It is the night when God first revealed the Koran to the Prophet Muhammad through the angel Gabriel more than 1,400 years ago.

It is the night when God continuously sends his angels, including Gabriel, to earth, so our planet is literally overflowing with the celestial beings.

The presence of angels is simultaneous with God's mercy, and so I cannot be asleep on such a night.

Many Islamic scholars believe the night of power falls on the 27th of Ramadan, but no one knows for sure.

What we know is that it falls on any one of the last 10 nights of Ramadan — likely rotating on those holiest days from one year to another — and there are signs in the atmosphere that indicate its presence.

Sounds grandiose, right?

It is.

The weather is even keel, not so hot and not so cold. The sky is also a bit brighter than usual, and when the sun rises, it's bright with no rays. There are also those — the most righteous among us — who tend to sense its presence.

Muslims believe that God offers this night as our chance to worship him beyond our capacity to live.

When the Prophet Muhammad became aware of the length of time people lived centuries ago, he wondered how Muslims could compete with that, Yasir Qadhi said in a recent sermon I watched online. Qadhi, who is working on his Ph.D in religious studies at Yale University, is the dean of academic affairs and instructor at AlMaghrib Institute, and a lecturer at Rhodes College's Department of Religious Studies.

Because we are not capable of living for hundreds of years, God provided this night for Muslims.

A thousand months of worship comes to about 83.3 years. And Muslims have the chance to do it every single year during the last 10 days of Ramadan in their lifetimes.

On that night, God also reveals to those angels their tasks on earth for the next year to come.

Qadhi said that each angel has a task, like those whose jobs it is to breathe life into the womb of mothers, or those whose duty is to increase someone's blessing, or even decrease it, among others, and on the night of power, each angel gets its schedule for the next year to come.

(I seriously cannot be sleeping on a night like this, not only because I'm a Muslim, but because I'm a very curious journalist).

When the prophet's wife, Aisha, asked him what would be the best thing to say if one was to catch the night of power, the prophet told her to say the following: "O God! Verily, you are the oft-pardoning, You love to pardon, so pardon me."

Because we don't know which night it is exactly, many Muslims stay up or get up early in the morning on each of the last 10 nights of Ramadan to make sure they don't miss it.

I'm not the only one who's been deprived of sleep in hopes of catching Laylat ul-Qadr this year; millions of devout Muslims — including my mom, Shadia, aunt Gannat, and Uncle Beautiful — are also on the hunt for this night, and we are each year, because one who worships God on this night is worthy of its blessings.

Most mosques have a night-long program on the 27th, which I attend with my mom and aunt and some friends each year.

There's much to gain on this night, and someday I'm hoping to sense its presence and recognize its signs when it arrives.

I can't really describe in words what it means for me to be able to catch this night or how I've been feeling these last few days.

But I can tell you that for as long as I live, I won't be asleep when this night is here.

And even if I fail to ever sense its presence or receive its blessings, pursuing it shall remain more than enough for me.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Shadia: A time of faith and festivity too

Do you know how Christmas is supposed to be about faith?
That's what Ramadan is supposed to be about too — God.

But like Christmastime, Ramadan, for some, becomes a time for lavish dinner parties and uncontrollable spending.
For producers and television stations, it's time to make money from special soap operas (which come right out of Egypt, the Hollywood of the Middle East).

Ramadan is supposed to be the month of feeding — feeding those in need, feeding your soul. But for some people and cultures, it's the month of gorging after sunset and seeking entertainment.
It's restaurants and food retailers' chance to make the most money.

And like with Christmastime, certain foods and drinks are associated with Ramadan (definitely not honey-baked ham).
In Egypt, pastries are a big thing. At least, they were in my childhood, and they continue to be in my home here. (It's all my mom's fault. I'm not the one making it — I'm just eating it.)

It makes sense because fasting results in sugar cravings, but that's probably why the Prophet Muhammad used to break his fast with dates.
Breaking the day's fast with dates was recommended by the prophet. They were also a staple food during his time for their ability to be preserved, and withstand the harsh weather and travel conditions.

Most Muslims break their fast with dates, sometimes with a glass of milk.
For Arabs, one of the popular pastries associated with Ramadan is "attaief," a pancake-like dough stuffed with nuts or cheese, deep-fried then submerged in honey (yep, very fattening). There's also "kunafa," which is shredded dough that's also filled with nuts or cheese, baked and then covered with honey (not as fattening, just pretty fattening).

And instead of eggnog during Christmastime, Ramadan drinks include apricot juice mixed with dried fruits, such as figs and apricots.
There are also those who stay up all night during Ramadan and sleep for most of the day, which totally defeats the point of fasting.

You might not notice these cultural aspects of Ramadan in the United States as much as you would in, say, Egypt.
But if you are familiar with the area in Anaheim known as Little Arabia, you'll see some of these practices. Little Arabia is filled with restaurants that prepare buffets for iftar — the fast-breaking meal at sunset — with a variety of foods, and some provide entertainment afterward.

When I told a friend who is familiar with the scene in Anaheim that I was going to write about this, he used the term, "Ramadanian tents."
I hadn't heard that term before, but basically, because restaurants are busier than usual, the owners set up tents to provide extra seating. This practice is very popular during Ramadan in the Middle East.
After sunset, the tents house guests who are there for entertainment that includes hookah, tea and music.

In a way, even if you're a devout Muslim who frowns upon all the cultural practices and special foods, it's difficult to dissociate yourself from them all. I'm sure there are many Christians who celebrate Christmas for all the right reasons, but still probably take advantage of the sales, deals and festivities that come with the holiday.

I haven't been doing much since Ramadan started, other than working, fasting, praying, eating at sunset and going to the mosque for taraweh — the extra daily prayers — as often as I can.
So this past weekend, I decided to experience Ramadan from both the spiritual and cultural perspectives.

I attended Jumaa, Muslims' weekly Friday sermon, at my mosque. I hadn't attended Jumaa during Ramadan before. The sermon was about Islam's third pillar: Zakat, or alms in English. I also attended a community iftar at the mosque with my mom and aunt, staying to pray taraweh afterward.

Saturday, however, I took a different route and attended a concert and had suhoor, which is eating before dawn, at a restaurant.

Saturday happens to have been the day when Niyaz, a Persian mystic music group my friend Meesh and I love, was playing at Grand Performances in Los Angeles.
We attended, and to my surprise, the group had a Sufi whirling performer. Sufi whirling is a form of meditation originated by some Sufi Muslims and practiced during their religious ceremonies. The idea is that while one is whirling, he or she discards all worldly desires and focuses on a relationship with God.

I had never seen this dance live before, and it was interesting to watch it unfold so majestically.
I had planned on coming back to Orange County for suhoor with friends at 2:30 a.m. at a restaurant in Little Arabia, but instead we went to an Arabic restaurant for a late dinner, then met up with a couple other friends at another Arabic cafe.

And what did I learn from all of this?
It's that I'm getting old and should not be staying up and out too late, especially during Ramadan.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Shadia: 'Taraweh' is Muslims' opera

The other night I struggled to come up with a simple way to describe the magnitude of "taraweh" — the extra prayers performed nightly during Ramadan.

And then an enigmatic Muslim poet I know compared it — perfectly — to opera.

There's standing in place in awe of the eloquence of God's words and their melody. There's simultaneous bowing. There's kneeling and prostrating in unison. There's dramatic begging, hands raised toward the sky. There are trembling voices, tears.
There are no instruments, but who needs them? The mesmerizing words of the recitation of the Koran is music enough.

Taraweh is said to wash the sins of those who perform it. It is based on one of the Prophet Muhammad's traditions during Ramadan. And it takes place at every mosque after "Isha," the last of the daily prayers.

Taraweh is not mandatory. One Ramadan, the prophet held taraweh for the first couple of nights and then didn't show up the next. When people later inquired about his absence, he said he didn't attend out of fear that his followers would believe it mandatory.

Unlike the usual five daily prayers, which take only a few minutes, taraweh lasts at least an hour, sometimes two or more.

There's usually a break in the middle, where the imam gives a three- to five-minute talk. There are also fundraising efforts during the break, either for the mosque's operation or to fund its charity programs.

One would think it's unbearable to do it for just a night, let alone 30. But there are those who never miss a beat.

Taraweh is what gets me to the mosque, and without it, Ramadan wouldn't be the same.

I only started attending taraweh about two Ramadans ago, and I don't remember exactly why, but I can barely imagine Ramadan without it now.

If my schedule allowed, I would do it every single night, but I wouldn't attend even a free opera show for 30 nights in a row.

Mosques go through rigorous preparation for taraweh, from ensuring daily security to providing extra parking and baby-sitting.

Reciting the Koran is at the heart of taraweh. Mosques usually recite the entire book during the 30 nights.

And for the imams, taraweh showcases their talents and abilities to recite the Koran. Some of the best reciters are flown across seas to recite the Koran during taraweh.

There's an art to reciting the Koran called tajweed, and learning it takes years. Its melody is inspiring, moving and like nothing else you've heard, even if you don't understand a single word.

It brings grown men to tears and to their knees.

Praying taraweh brings me immense joy and inner peace.

I choke up when Imam Mohammed Ibn Faqih's voice trembles as he recites the Koran during taraweh at my mosque, the Islamic Institute of Orange County in Anaheim.

And when he is clearly overcome with the power of the words, I feel as though my body is shrinking, humble before God.

I come from a culture stereotyped for its cold, chauvinistic men. But times like taraweh are when their true nature is revealed.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Shadia: The benefits of Ramadan are truly endless

Refraining from food and water all day during Ramadan is not that bad.

That's because we still get to eat twice — just before sunrise and again after sunset.

There's "iftar," which is the breaking-of-the-fast meal at sunset. But there's also "suhoor," which is a light meal Muslims eat before sunrise to be able to withstand not eating during the day.

Right now, the fast starts at about 4:20 a.m. in Southern California. The time varies, depending on location.

In Islam, suhoor fall into the category of "sunna," which means it's recommended. Sunna in Arabic means "the way of something." In general, when Muslims say sunna, it means following the way of the prophet.

When I was little, a guy used to walk our street with a drum and a little song in the middle of the night to wake up people for suhoor. That happens throughout the Arab world.

Most, but not all, Muslims get up for suhoor. Some people's work schedules don't allow them to get up in the middle of the night to eat and then go back to sleep before going to work.

Some just were never used to waking up and don't do it.

I'm one of those people.

My mom never gets up for suhoor and never woke me or my sister up when we were little, and so I don't do suhoor. Besides, I'm not really a breakfast kind of person.

If I happen to get up before sunrise, I usually drink water. If I'm already up late, like on many weekends during non-Ramadan time with my friends, then I'll eat something.

In the Middle East, restaurants are open throughout the night during Ramadan. Restaurants along Brookhurst Street in Anaheim, a section of Little Arabia, are bustling during iftar and suhoor.

Ramadan is not about feasting in the middle of the night or spending money on a variety of foods, but these are cultural aspects of this month and they have been mixed with its spirituality. It is important to draw that distinction.

Like iftar, which is usually a joyous gathering between family, friends and neighbors, suhoor serves as a great bonding time with your closest family members.

Affad Shaikh, a Muslim American of Pakistani descent whom I know from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, left his Newport Beach apartment for the month to spend Ramadan with his family.

Affad, 29, recently quit his job and is attending law school. He's out for the summer, which presented the perfect opportunity to spend Ramadan with his parents and younger brother and sister in Palmdale for the first time in a few years.

The family's alarm clocks go off right at 3:30 a.m., the lights go on and all members of his household gather in the kitchen for fried or boiled eggs. Mom prepares Paratha, which is like Pakistani tortilla that Affad and his brother like to eat with honey and dad prefers with banana. Affad makes himself a protein shake.

When the food is ready, everyone sits together to eat, talk and laugh. Affad said they talk about the news, about their plans for the day. Because their dad leaves to work at 5:30 a.m., it's a great chance to spend time and talk with him in the morning.

"I definitely appreciate being with family for suhoor," he said.

Once the family is done eating, they get ready to pray Fajr, which is the first prayer of the day. They also read the Koran and then, Affad said, "I'm usually knocked out."

"During Ramadan, we're kind of forced to sit as a family because of the time constraints," he said. "It's very communal. You get to come together to do these things."

You see, the benefits of Ramadan are endless. It's not just about worshiping God, character building, giving to the needy and refraining from food. It's also about eating together. It's about community.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Shadia: Refreshing my faith during Ramadan

Ramadan starts Thursday night (insert multiple happy faces here).
You would think that because I will be refraining from eating and drinking for about 15 hours a day for the next month, I would be dreading the arrival of Islam's holiest month.

You would think that because I'll be cutting down on my nights out with my friends, and, instead, devoting more of my time to praying and reexamining my priorities, I would be a little bummed out.

But when it comes to Ramadan, frankly, I can forget the food, the drinks, even the parties. There's just something about Ramadan that tingles my heart and brings me a sense of peace and comfort, even more so than praying five times a day, and more so than going to the mosque on any other day.

I don't know about everyone else, but when Ramadan is here, I sense calmness and kindness in the air. I'm usually also more careful, patient, focused and not quick to react to anything (the latter might be because I'm not eating and don't have as much energy).

But the energy I feel is inward, centered and strong. It gets me back to basics, to who I am and what I stand for.

I started fasting when I was 6 years old. And in the last few years, I started promising myself to make each Ramadan better than the one before it. I made that promise to myself when, by the end of two Ramadans ago, I felt I didn't do enough. Didn't pray enough, didn't commit enough. I regretted it and wished I had done more.

Ramadan falls on the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is one of Islam's five pillars. The fast begins Friday.

Forgoing food and drink is not unique to Islam. Some Jews fast on Yom Kippur. Devout Catholics often give up certain foods during Lent, and other Christian denominations follow Jesus' teachings and fast for various periods of time in hopes that self-sacrifice will make them closer to God.

The Koran says that fasting was not only prescribed to us, but also to those who came before.

We fast for many reasons: With all of life's hassles, Ramadan is a chance to stop for a minute and renew your connection with God. It's also a way to change your habits, including eating, and it really leads to seeing things from a clearer perspective and remembering what matters most in life.

Fasting puts us in others' shoes, including those who are dying from starvation and injustice throughout the world. It's a chance to stand beside them, not just by refraining from eating, but by helping them in every way we can.

It's not like we're supposed to do that in Ramadan and then, once it's over, move on and go back to our old ways. Ramadan is a reminder of all the things we should be doing throughout the year and throughout our lives. It's a reminder and a chance for a new beginning.

I know that it's difficult for some to understand. Why starve yourself to do all of that? But Ramadan's fast is not about refraining from eating. This is just one aspect of it, and it's probably the easiest of all.

It's faith. And faith — just like love — is difficult to understand.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Shadia: Loving dogs at a distance

If you've lived near a Muslim or a Middle Eastern family, or if you know one, then you've probably seen them act a little weird around dogs.

And there are probably few things funnier — or more perplexing — than seeing a full-grown Muslim run, or get visibly uncomfortable, when a dog rushes toward him.

I was that way for a while, and I'll get back to you on why.

But generally, there's a sense out there that Muslims or Islam have a bone to pick with dogs.

As usual, it's more complicated than that. It's quite the opposite, actually. Dogs are mentioned in a positive light in Islam.

There's a story that goes like this: A man was once in deep thirst while on the road. He eventually found a well of water, lowered himself into it, and fulfilled his thirst. On his way out, he found a dog with his tongue out in thirst. So the man went back to the well and scooped water with one of his shoes so the dog could drink. He did this until the dog's thirst was fulfilled.

We are taught that for that simple act of kindness toward the dog, God forgave all of the man's sins, and he was rewarded with paradise.

So why do some Muslims act weirdly around dogs or, in some well-documented instances — like taxi drivers or store owners refusing to give service to blind individuals because they have guide dogs — act in a cruel manner toward them?

It's a combination of two things.

Islam has four dominant schools of thought. Muslims usually follow one — or none.

Each school of thought is referred to by the name of a Muslim scholar who provided rulings on various issues based on analysis of the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad's life and statements. They range from being very conservative to being liberal on numerous questions.

Those scholars usually disagree and give different rulings on the same issues, but they're all nonetheless credible and highly respected by Muslims.

Two Islamic schools of thought, the Shaafi'i and Hanbali, contend that a dog's nasal area, which is often wet, is "najis," or impure, and that means if it touches you or your clothes, you must wash up before praying. It has nothing to do with the dog itself.

If you follow those opinions, you can still have a service dog, guard dog or even a dog as a pet, provided that you keep it mostly in the backyard, make sure it doesn't touch your prayer area, care for it and play with it.

Another school of thought, the Maliki, disagrees. According to Maliki, a dog's nasal area is not impure, and if it touches you, it's no big deal at all.

Some Muslims who follow the impurity opinion take it up a notch, often out of ignorance, and act as if the dog were a disease. They get uncomfortable, freak out or act unkindly when one comes near them and, of course, irresponsibly and unjustly cite Islam.

The other factor is that the places and countries that Middle Easterners come from sometimes negatively influence their reactions toward dogs. For me, the culture and some personal weirdness, not Islam, are what influence my reaction.

In the Middle East, dogs freely roam the streets. They're dirty and sometimes sick or vicious. In Egypt, you stay away from dogs; you don't make space for them in your bed. (I should note that when I went to Egypt in 2010, I didn't notice as many dogs on the streets.)

When we were little, my sister was chased by a dog on two different occasions. She got bitten once in the thigh and still has a round scar there.

I was petrified of dogs.

I also have hygiene issues and have always been this way. I wash my hands many times during the day. I sometimes get up in the middle of eating to wash my hands if I think they got too dirty, then I wash them again after I finish eating.

It's weird, I know.

So I don't like it when a dog's nasal area, especially a drooling one, touches me. I don't like it when I can smell the scent of any animal or when any animal touches me. If I were able to get past that hurdle, I would have a dog for a pet because I'm often characterized as a dog person and some of them are very cute.

It's not the dogs; it's me.

My friend Eric — who loves his dogs, kisses them and lets them (eww!) lick his face — once said, "Mona is not as scared of the dog hurting her as much as she's scared of it kissing her."

So if you see a Muslim or a Middle Easterner act weirdly around a dog, remember that it's probably complicated. If you see a Muslim act unkindly toward a dog and give you the "Islam says" excuse to justify it, know that it's probably ignorance.

Tell them the story about the man who went to heaven for helping a dog. Tell them what the Islamic schools of thought say and how their differing opinions still have nothing against dogs. That'll give them something to think about.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Shadia: Five prayers a day is harder than it looks

I struggle to fulfill my commitment to five daily prayers.

It's not something that I'm proud to admit because praying brings out the best in me.

Like eating and drinking to nourish your body, praying five times a day feeds your soul, connects you to God and helps you stay on track.

The exact hour and minute of each prayer may vary, but in general, Muslims pray in the morning, around noon, in the afternoon, at sunset and in the evening. Each prayer is about five minutes or less.

For as long as I can remember, I prayed. Uncle Beautiful must have taught me back in Egypt, though I have to admit, I don't really remember because I was always surrounded by people in constant prostration to God.

In Egypt, you get up in the morning and there's someone praying. You decide to take a nap and when you get up, someone else is praying. You're in school or hanging out on the balcony and you hear the call to prayer and pray.

When I moved to the United States, I gave up praying.

But it wasn't long before I started to pray again. There was a boy I liked in high school. One day we were talking, and he asked what religion I practiced. When I told him, his response was that his Christian beliefs were the real and only way to God and heaven.

When our conversation ended, I went straight to pray.

That's exactly how it happened. I haven't stopped praying since, and I credit that boy for getting me to pray again. (There's a reason why schmucks come into your life.)

I think that part of me worried that I was outside my comfort zone in a new country, and praying reminded me of who I am and what I believe.

When I say I haven't stopped praying since, I should note that I sometimes did not meet all five prayers.

I prayed whenever it was convenient. So instead of five times a day, for years I prayed in the morning, when I got up, and in the evening, before I went to sleep.

I decided last summer that I couldn't pray just twice a day and that I needed to make the effort to do all five.

So I did. I would pray in the morning, as usual. Then I would pray the noon and afternoon prayers after I got home from work. Then I would pray the sunset and evening prayers at their regular times if I was home. But I would sometimes pray in the morning, then the rest all together at night, if I was working late or had plans after work.

Though I felt proud of fulfilling all five prayers, I was soon overwhelmed with praying all four together. I decided in December that to make it easier and correct, I would have to pray on time. I would get up early to fulfill the first prayer. I started keeping a rug, head cover and baggy sweat pants in my desk at work to wear while I pray. You must dress modestly while praying and women must cover their hair.

I told my editors that I would be praying at work and that it wouldn't take away from my work, and they had no problem with it.

I also stopped wearing makeup to work so that when I wash my face, I wouldn't look like such a hot mess.

Yeah. Washing your face with clean water is part of what you do before praying. It's called ablution, "wudou" in Arabic.

At the beginning, I would go to the restroom, do my wudou and wonder what people would think when they walked in and saw me drenching my face, neck, arms and feet with water.

I would go to one of our empty rooms in the office to pray, and while doing so, I wondered what someone would do or say if they walked in on me.

I haven't been caught yet.

Still, there are times when I miss my ritual because I'm busy with a story or simply because I don't want to stop what I'm doing to do something else.

I scold myself when I miss.

Praying is simple.

It makes me feel better and makes me a better person. It doesn't take long. So why can't I easily fulfill each prayer?

I'm not sure what the answer is.

But what I know is that I always return to praying. And I always will.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Shadia: From 50 prayers a day to five

This might hurt. But once it's over, we'll all feel better.

Jerusalem, the blessed city, the witness to heaven's miracles, the center of faith, hope and despair, is not just important to Jews and Christians.

It is significant to Muslims as well.

Muslims just celebrated the anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad's Night Journey and Ascension from Mecca to Jerusalem to heaven on June 17, which this year was the 27th day of the Islamic lunar calendar month, Rajab.

You almost don't want to believe it. I mean, how could you go from Mecca in Saudi Arabia, to Jerusalem to the seventh heaven and back to Mecca in one night?

But like the miraculous crossing of the sea by Moses and the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary, this story was also one of the first I learned about as a child.

The prophet had just lost his most beloved wife, Khadija, and his uncle, Abu Talib, who raised him and protected him, and had been enduring the cruelty and physical attacks of those who didn't believe him when God took him on the journey of the Isra and Mi'raj.

He led a prayer with the prophets of Islam, where the Dome of the Rock mosque, inside Haram al Sharif (or the Noble Sanctuary) in the Old City, now stands. Jerusalem is repeatedly referred to in the Koran as the sacred and blessed land. It is also the direction in which early Muslims used to pray.

That changed later when Muslims were instructed to pray toward Mecca, the same direction we believe Abraham used to pray.

After leading the prayer in Jerusalem during the Night Journey and Ascension, the prophet ascended from that point to heaven and came back with instructions for Muslims to pray five times a day. He couldn't have gotten to heaven from anywhere else.

With him at almost every step of the way was the angel Gabriel.

In the first heaven, the prophet met Adam.

In the second, he met Jesus and John the Baptist.

In the third, he met Joseph

In the fourth, he met Idris (Enoch).

In the fifth, he saw Aaron.

In the sixth, he saw Moses.

And in the seventh, he met our patriarch, Abraham.

The prophet was welcomed by Adam, Jesus, John the Baptist, Joseph, Idris, Aaron and Moses as their brother, and by Abraham as his son, and a deputy of God. (It's right about here in the story when I get goosebumps all over.)

This is where it becomes clear that our religion's root doesn't start with Muhammad, but begins with Adam and goes on from Abraham to Jesus and beyond. Dishonoring or disrespecting one of them is like disrespecting all of them.

OK. Back to the prophet's Night Journey and Ascension.

The prophet then continued on to what's called the Lote-Tree of the Farthest Limit, and it was then when Gabriel told him he'd have to go it alone.

There, the prophet spoke directly to God. He commanded him to instruct Muslims to pray 50 times a day. That's 50!

The prophet didn't question it.

But on his way back, Moses saved the day (he's famous for that).

He told Muhammad to go back and request that the number be decreased, that the burden is too high, that he'd experienced human nature with the Children of Israel, and 50 is just too much, and it isn't going to work.

The prophet went back and the number was lowered to 45. Moses again told him to return and request that the number be decreased.

The number was again lowered, but not by much, to 40.

Moses continued to send him back until the daily prayer was lowered from 50 to five.

At that point, Moses still wanted to send him back, but Muhammad told him he was too embarrassed to go again, and the number remained at five.

I would like to officially thank Moses for intervening to lower the number of daily prayers from 50 to five. Keeping up with five is tough enough.

Every single command given to Muslims came from heaven to Muhammad on earth through the angel Gabriel. But when it came to prayers, the prophet was ascended to heaven to retrieve it directly.

Praying is a Muslim's direct link to God. It's difficult to forget about God, to lie, steal, cheat or hurt when you're constantly going back for five times a day to connect with him, to thank him and ask for his strength.

It is like food for the soul. (I hear that eating small meals several times a day is a good way to stay healthy and keep your metabolism going.)

So when you see a Muslim praying, remember this story. Remember that more likely than not, that Muslim is feeding his or her soul.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm late for my second prayer.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Shadia: A play on perceptions

Surprise, surprise.

I took a Jew to a mosque and no one got hurt.

My friend Meesh and I attended the celebration of the King Fahad-Templ Emanuel Fellowship in Los Angeles, where a group of Jews and Muslims partnered up for a few months and shared stories, food and traditions in hopes of melting down the misconceptions and myths we sometimes believe about each other.

"A Night to Inspire" was held at King Fahad Mosque and attracted Jews, Muslims and anyone else who was interested in the work of Newground, a nonprofit that works to foster relations between the two faiths.

Meesh, a Jew, and I, a Muslim, were curious about the fellowship and the experiences of those who participated. I also thought we should show them how a Jew and a Muslim form a lasting bond in real life.

Because the event was held at a mosque, the email instructed women to dress modestly and, preferably, cover their hair.

Like a hawk, I was on top of things (or so I thought). I brought head covers for Meesh and myself, wore a long skirt, put on my long cardigan and hijab in the car and waited for Meesh. On the phone, Meesh told me she was dressed like an Orthodox Jew going to temple. Perfect, I told her.

Meesh is a conservative Jew.

I was fixing my hijab when Meesh entered the mosque for the first time in her life. Because she's my friend, it was humbling for me to watch it happen. I felt excited and proud — though, rest assured, I'm not interested in converting Meesh to Islam.

(I'm not sure I'd like her as much if she were Muslim ... OK, stop gasping. I'm only kidding.)

I wanted to make sure Meesh had the best and most welcoming time at the mosque. I had no doubts she would, but to be honest, I was a little anxious because I know our people can be a bit too critical at times.

I didn't like it when, the minute she walked in, someone asked her to take off her shoes. (She wasn't even in the prayer hall yet. You see what I'm talking about now?) And I felt really annoyed when a young woman offered to get her a longer skirt to pull over her already Orthodox-acceptable one (the skirt stopped below her knees).

Meesh later told me that she asked if her skirt was too short, which led the woman to offer a longer one.

We stood in the restroom for a few minutes, chatting and laughing about nothing and covering our hair. Meesh, who is Persian, was about to tie the hijab the way Orthodox Jewish women often do it in America when she decided to do it the way many Middle Eastern women do.

And that confused people. Because Meesh looks Middle Eastern, there were those who weren't sure if she was Muslim or Jewish, and she enjoyed watching the uncertain looks on some faces.

Two fellowship members — a Muslim and a Jew who were assigned to each other for the duration of the fellowship — spoke of their experience.

When the Jewish fellow was speaking about his experience, Meesh seemed critical of him and at least once whispered, "That's not true" to something he said.

She later said, "I identify with his emphasis on Judaism as a cultural and a national identity, but I also feared that the tone of his statement would lead to a perception that faith and God does not play as important a role in Judaism."

I didn't get that perception.

At one point, the Muslim woman spoke about an experience she had after9/11when a group of people harassed her on a train. In describing the incident, she repeatedly stressed that there are bad people in the world, which I perceived as a veiled statement about Jews. I know that wasn't her intention, but given the many misconceptions some of us already have about each other, I was afraid it would lead to that understanding.

Meesh didn't think the woman was equating her bad experience with Jews and wasn't at all offended.

We were at an event that fosters relations between Jews and Muslims. The two obviously didn't share many misconceptions about the other's faith.

We found ourselves analyzing why we were critical of our own people.

Is it because we're just weird?

You might think so. But, the truth is it's because religion is very personal and very individualistic.

Each Muslim and Jew is not alike. The way I view God and interpret Islam is personal to me. The way Meesh views God and identifies with Judaism is also personal to her.

And because we care about our faiths, we wanted it presented in the perfect light — our standard of perfect, that is.

Lessons? We as humans shouldn't be judging one another. And on a larger scale, we certainly shouldn't be judging others' path in life.

Next, Meesh is taking me to a temple.

Should I be worried?

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Shadia: Your heart and actions matter, not your appearance

A group of people once brought a drunk man to the Prophet Muhammad, thinking that because alcohol is forbidden he would react harshly.

Instead, the prophet questioned their judgmental behavior and criticism, telling them that he knew the man loved him and God.

I'm telling you this because a few weeks ago I had a conversation with a local imam on what determines faith.

I told him that I believe Islam teaches that faith is between one person and God, that a person's appearance to outsiders doesn't determine his or her level of devotion.

I told him that not covering my hair, for example, doesn't make me less Muslim.

His response was that I should reconsider my position on the hijab, that, basically, my credibility and social standing are likely to be elevated if I start covering my hair.

I'm pretty sure I was rolling my eyes.

Here we go again, I thought.

My Uncle Beautiful first got me to cover my hair when I was about 6 years old. He couldn't get my strong-willed mom, Shadia, to do it. And so my sister and I walked fully covered in public next to our mom, while her hair flowed freely.

I despised the hijab and fought hard against wearing it.

I lost that battle.

But I got to choose for myself when I came to America.

My mom now covers her hair — her choice.

My sister, Marwa, and I don't — our choice.

Things between me and Uncle Beautiful are now fine, though it wasn't easy to get here. I'm comfortable with my choice of not covering.

But over time, and honestly because I'm probably more sensitive to the hijab, I've grown frustrated with many in my community who have collectively created this perception that somehow you're better, more faithful and more pious if you cover your locks.

That, I believe, is what led my uncle to make sure I covered. He believed then (as he does now) that a Muslim woman is commanded by God to cover her hair and dress modestly, but he mainly worried about the perception people would have had of me.

This is why he fought with my mom over it — not out of cruelty, but out of love, strange as it might sound.

Imam Yassir Fazaga, religious leader of the Orange County Islamic Foundation in Mission Viejo, said there is a difference between religious mandates and the value a society places on public expressions of those mandates.

Covering is one of the few visual expressions for Islamic women, Fazaga said. The same goes for faithful Muslim men, who often have beards.

These displays in Islam are similar to wearing crosses in Christianity, Fazaga said.

People in our culture have attached the hijab or beards to certain meanings: that the person is more pious or faithful.

But, ultimately, what you do on the surface shouldn't determine your faith or lack thereof, Fazaga said.

It is about what's in your heart.

You might think I'm being too critical of my community, but it is because I love my community that I challenge some of its members' unwillingness to sometimes see beyond the surface — hence, the imam who thinks simply covering my hair will get people to think highly of me.

It is because I love my uncle that I challenge him to accept that it's fine to disagree on the routes, even though we're seeking the same destination.

I believe wholeheartedly that Islam forbids people from judging others from the surface, and it is because of examples like the one about the drunk man I mentioned earlier.

The prophet also once said that God "does not look at your appearance or wealth, but rather He looks at your hearts and actions."

It dawns on me that the tendency to judge people based on their appearance or path in life isn't specific to Muslims.

We all do it and, in turn, we are all responsible for the rift it has created in our society, from the day-to-day pressures we place on women's appearances to religious groups that argue they're better than their counterparts or that ultimately their path to God is the only correct one.

If God is capable of giving you a unique mind, look and heart, is He not capable of understanding that uniqueness?

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Shadia: Standing alongside Syrians, if only in spirit

When I was growing up in Cairo, there was a rumor that the Egyptian secret service placed an informant in every neighborhood who knew every little move you made, your family history and what you said about the government.

Just one bad word about the regime, and you'd be snatched from your bed, never to be seen again.

Though I was young and didn't understand politics, the idea of an informant scared me.

I didn't really want to believe this rumor — unconfirmed as it was — about my neighbors, who were good and kind people.

There was a man whom people thought was the informant. He had a day job — a presumed cover, of course — but I heard he had a top position in the government.

And then there was an incident when a young man from my street disappeared. Neighbors said he was taken to prison and might never come back. He did came back, though, only different. He wasn't as social or as passionate, just changed.

Now that I'm older and understand more about how the Middle East works, I doubt that man in my neighborhood was the informant. Informants by definition do not easily stand out. They could be your teacher, your neighbor, even your brother.

Dictators use fear and retaliation to control the population. Systematic arrests, imprisonment, torture and execution crush citizens' spirits, keeping them silent. But usually just the idea that a neighbor could rat you out to the government was enough to keep people in check.

This idea that you can sit in a coffee shop with your friends and criticize your government or president, as we do here, was nonexistent where I grew up.

I thought things were bad in Egypt before the Arab Spring — that is, until I learned more about what is happening in Syria.

Not only has the Syrian government monitored its citizens for the last 40 years, the Assad regime controls every aspect of people's lives, from arts and entertainment to social norms and politics. It's not really a government; it's a mafia-like system, where torture and execution are common.

People are thought of as property. That's true of everyone, including women and children.

When I think of the way I felt about the informant, the man who disappeared for years, the torture in Syria and the ongoing killing of innocent children, it's clear why Arabs rarely have tried to rebel en masse until now.

That so many of them rose up at once is nothing short of a miracle from God above.

According to the Syrian American Council, more than 15,000 Syrians have been killed since the Syrian revolt that began in March. Among the dead are an estimated 1,000 children, 1,000 women and 600 people who died during torture.

Yet Syrians are continuing to risk their lives for ideals we sometimes take for granted: freedom, dignity, justice.

You might not be able to stop the injustice in Syria, but you may support its victims by staying aware, speaking out against human rights abuses and standing alongside them in spirit.

When you think of them, think of the life and freedom you would want for yourself, your family, friends and children. And remember, the Founding Fathers and their followers once fought for the freedom you have today.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

Shadia: Dreams are coming true in Egypt

Something amazing is happening.

Something I only dreamed about and thought it would always remain a dream.

For the first time in Egypt's thousands of years of existence — a history marked with glory and failures — its citizens are deciding who should lead them as president.

I used to think I'd see peace between the Palestinians and Israelis before I saw the birth of democracy in Egypt.

It wasn't because I didn't think Egyptians weren't capable. I knew all along that my people were brave, that they could break away from the shackles of dictatorship, that they knew they deserved better. I just felt that Egyptians were too kind, too forgiving, too accepting — even too thankful — of their conditions to demand something better.

When Egyptians took to Tahrir Square, I wasn't shocked, but excitement and pride took over my entire being. When Mubarak stepped down, I cried with relief.

When the first-ever presidential debate between the top two candidates was playing on Egyptian television two weeks ago — with people hovering over it in homes and hookah cafes like they do for soccer games — I was jumping in my chair at the office. And now, as they stand in miles-long lines to vote, my heart is beating with joy.

But then there are those Negative Nancys out there who say democracy in Egypt and the Arab world isn't gonna happen, because, you know, it's already been a year and a half and democracy and order hasn't taken over Egypt yet.

For those who think democracy happens overnight, that it's not a tedious and frustrating process, that each of its steps doesn't take hard work, failure, sweat and sacrifice, let me remind you of America's road to democracy.

Not every American wanted independence from the British. There wasn't just one unified military, but several groups, each with its own mission and agenda.

Even after independence, there were many failures leading up to the writing of the Constitution. And it took many fights and long nights to get it done for the majority of Americans to agree we should be the United States of America. Why would it be any different somewhere else?

But, of course, uncertainty is looming. That pathetic uncertainly! Always hanging around, taunting me, bursting my bubble!

I listened to the founder and president of theWashington, D.C.-based Arab American Institute, James Zogby, speak Thursday at the World Affairs Council of Orange County about Arab voices and what they're saying to us.

Zogby, an internationally acclaimed author and commentator, was critical of the U.S. government's attitude toward the Arab world, of how Americans place Arabs in one box and how Washington traditionally refuses to acknowledge its mistakes or learn from them.

But he said hope is on the horizon.

When I asked him what he predicted would happen in Egypt and how it would impact the rest of the Arab nations, he said something that made me smile and instilled more pride in my native Egypt. He said when Egyptians revolted, it was like a great play making it onto Broadway.

Great plays don't start on Broadway, Zogby said. They start somewhere else, like Connecticut. But then if they reach Broadway, you know they've made it onto the world's stage, bound for a lasting impact.

Tunisia, which started the Arab Spring, is like Connecticut, he said. But Egypt — Egypt is Broadway!

When Zogby compared Egypt to Broadway, I started picturing Broadway, its beauty, timelessness, drama and greatness, and how Egypt and its uprising resemble it in many ways. Then I got back to listening to Zogby's answer.

Zogby said we know for a fact that whoever gets elected president is not going to have the same power Mubarak had, and we don't know exactly how things will unfold, but that is in itself exciting.

Zogby didn't seem to worry about the kind of government Egypt will end up with as much as he worries about its economy. He said a public-private partnership to get Egyptians back on their feet is the way to go.

You must wonder what I think should be the role of Islam in a democratic Egypt. Like America's values, which are based on the traditions of the Abrahamic (mainly Christian) faiths, Egypt's principles should be based on Islamic values.

As far as I'm concerned, no government should tell me how to worship or who to worship. Faith and modesty don't come from the government, but from within. Egyptians will eventually catch up with that, but it takes time.

There's been a lot of talk about the status of Copts in the new Egypt, with some arguing that their rights will be minimized, but I refuse to think of them as a minority. In fact, I didn't know what minority meant until I came to the United States.

Egypt's Copts are not a minority — they are Egyptians. They should never feel threatened in their own home, and if they do, then shame on all the Egyptian Muslims for letting it happen.

Egyptians are a diverse group of people, but they are united in demand of a government that will let them live a dignified, free life. They are united for an Egypt filled with opportunities for their children and the generations to come, and if this next government doesn't give Egyptians what they want, I bet you they'll be back to Tahrir Square — because once you're on Broadway, there's no stepping down.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.